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The NBA playoffs are less than a month away and both conferences feature seeding races that are sure to come down to the wire. Several top teams are missing key players who could return in time for the playoffs and help their teams’ postseason hopes.
The No. 5 Chicago Bulls and No. 6 Cleveland Cavaliers are separated by one game and missing Lonzo Ball and Jarrett Allen, respectively. The Cavs are just one game ahead of the Toronto Raptors and hoping to avoid the play-in tournament.
The Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets and Atlanta Hawks are No. 8, No. 9 and No. 10 in the East, respectively, entering Thursday’s games, all separated by one game and each missing key players. Will Ben Simmons make his Nets debut this season? Can Gordon Hayward return in time and help LaMelo Ball make a playoff run?
In the West, the struggling Golden State Warriors finally got Draymond Green back from a two-month absence, only to lose Stephen Curry. The Warriors are struggling to hold off the Utah Jazz, who are just three games out of the No. 3 seed. The Denver Nuggets are just a game and a half above the Minnesota Timberwolves for the No. 6 seed, but could get some much-needed help for Nikola Jokic in the coming weeks.
The Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans are locked in a race for home-court advantage in a potential play-in game, with both teams awaiting the returns of their stars. Can Anthony Davis help LeBron James save the Lakers’ season? Will Zion Williamson finally make his season debut?
Here’s the latest on where injured players stand during the last week of March.
Out since March 13 with a plantar fascia tear in his right foot and a right finger sprain
The Hawks announced on March 17 that Collins would be reevaluated in 10-14 days following a nonsurgical procedure on his foot. Collins sat out seven games while nursing the foot injury before returning to the team on March 4. He played four games but clearly wasn’t himself, averaging just 9.3 points on 35.9% shooting — down from his season averages of 16.2 points and 52.6%. Danilo Gallinari has filled in admirably as a starter with Collins out of the lineup, but Atlanta could use Collins’ scoring punch as it fights for positioning in the Eastern Conference play-in race. — Andrew Lopez
Has not played since June 20
Simmons has not played this season after requesting a trade out of Philadelphia last summer. He was dealt to the Nets prior to last month’s trade deadline, but still hasn’t been cleared to practice as he continues to deal with a herniated disc in his back. It remains to be seen if Simmons will play this season. Nets coach Steve Nash remains optimistic, but Simmons hasn’t been able to do anything on the floor in weeks. The Nets have played some of their best basketball of the season recently, winning six of their past seven games behind the power of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Nets players and coaches continue to say that Simmons is in good spirits. The Nets’ postseason hopes would benefit from Simmons’ perimeter defense and the way he can push the ball offensively, but there is still no time set for his return. — Nick Friedell
Out since Feb. 7 with a sprained left ankle
Hayward spoke to the media last week for the first time since February and said that the plan was to progress to contact this week and “see how it responds and kind of take it from there.” Charlotte is 26-22 when Hayward plays this season and 11-14 when he doesn’t. For a young, energetic team, Hayward’s steadiness, precise shooting — he’s hitting 39% of his 3s — and ability to create alongside Ball give Charlotte a big boost. If he can return before the play-in tournament, he’ll make the Hornets a far tougher team to eliminate. — Tim Bontemps
Out since Jan. 14 with a left knee injury
Ball will be reevaluated on March 31 after the Bulls “pulled back” the rehab process on his knee earlier this week because he wasn’t responding properly to the recovery program following arthroscopic knee surgery in January. Ball will be shut down from running until at least the end of the month, which puts a return during the regular season in jeopardy even if he starts to show improvement by then. Without Ball, the Bulls have moved Alex Caruso into the starting lineup and will count on second-round pick Ayo Dosunmu off the bench to continue to pick up the slack defensively. — Jamal Collier
Out since March 6 with a fractured left middle finger
Allen chose not to get surgery on his injured finger and the hope is that he’ll be able to return to the court for the Cavaliers before the end of the regular season. Allen has broken out in a big way this season, forming one of the league’s best interior defensive tandems alongside rookie Evan Mobley. He’s helped the Cavaliers turn into one of the league’s best stories this year with their surprising bid for a playoff spot. Whether Cleveland is able to remain in the top six in the East and avoid the play-in tournament could very well come down to whether Allen is able to return before the playoffs. — Bontemps
Out since April 12 with a torn left ACL
Murray has been working his way back and there is a chance he could be sent down to the G League for a block of practices, but a return this season is up in the air. The Nuggets are going to take things very slow with their star guard, who will be a year removed from tearing his ACL when the play-in tournament begins. Nuggets coach Michael Malone told reporters on Sunday that Murray is “not close” to playing in a game. Denver has nine games remaining in the regular season and the Nuggets’ approach has typically been to play things safe with the health of their top players and prospects. Jokic has carried the Nuggets, who trail the Dallas Mavericks by two games for the fifth spot in the West, but the Timberwolves are making a push for the sixth seed. — Ohm Youngmisuk
Out since Nov. 6 with a lower back injury
Porter underwent lumbar spine surgery on Dec. 1 and his agent, Mark Bartlestein, told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski in late February that Porter was progressing toward a possible return in March. Jokic has been sensational all season playing at an MVP level again, but Porter would be a big boost for the Nuggets with his 3-point shooting and rebounding. Denver is going to play it safe with their promising young forward, who has undergone three back procedures since November 2017, his freshman year at Missouri. The Nuggets could be a title contender next season with a healthy trio of Jokic, Murray and Porter, so Denver will proceed with caution. — Youngmisuk
Out since March 16 with a left foot strain
The Warriors will be without Curry for at least another week and a half as he recovers from a sprained ligament in his left foot. They have won just one game since his injury. The Memphis Grizzlies passed the Warriors for the No. 2 seed in Green’s two-month absence and now the Utah Jazz are closing in with just three games to separate them. Third-year guard Jordan Poole, who started in place of Klay Thompson ahead of his return, finds himself in the starting lineup again with Curry out. Poole has put up 29, 28, 26 and 30 points in the past four games, respectively, and has scored at least 20 points per game since March 3. Curry, Thompson and Green have played just 11 minutes together this season and are running out of time to find a rhythm together before the playoffs. — Kendra Andrews
Out since June 14 with a torn right ACL
Leonard suffered the injury in the second round of the 2021 playoffs against the Jazz and has not played since. He had surgery on July 13, but the Clippers still do not have a timetable for his return. The Clippers are entrenched in the eighth spot in the West and on their way to the play-in tournament. By all accounts, Leonard has been working hard and looks to be in good shape, but the Clippers will be extra cautious with their franchise star. If they make it out of the play-in tournament, however, and Paul George and Norman Powell also return, Leonard would just need clearance from the medical staff to play again. And that door has been left open. — Youngmisuk
Out since Dec. 22 with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow
George opted to let his elbow heal with rest instead of undergoing surgery to leave the door open for a return, but no timetable has been set. It could have been a death sentence for the Clippers’ season when the team announced on Christmas Day that George would be out indefinitely with Leonard also out, but Tyronn Lue and the Clippers are headed for the play-in tournament, currently eighth in the West. Still, the Clippers could desperately use George’s offense. The star guard has made progress: George has been seen shooting with his right hand from short to midrange and was cleared for minimal contact in 4-on-4 against the Clippers coaches. There are only three weeks left before the play-in tournament and the Clippers will be cautious with George, but seeing him back on the court is a positive sign. — Youngmisuk
Out since Feb. 16 with a right mid-foot sprain
If everything continues to progress well in Davis’ rehab, the All-Star big man could be suiting up for games by the first week of April, at the earliest, sources told ESPN. The Lakers have gone 18-7 in the past two postseasons when Davis and James were in the lineup and able to finish the game. That’s the stat that keeps L.A.’s locker room believing, despite how difficult this season has been. The Lakers struggled to adjust without him at first, going 2-9 out of the All-Star break, but started to find a mix that works by giving more time to role players like Stanley Johnson, Austin Reaves and Wenyen Gabriel to replicate the defensive-minded presence that Davis provides, while letting James continue to shoulder the offensive burden. If Davis can get back, there won’t be much time to ramp things up before the play-in tournament, but if his immediate return to high-level play coming off an MCL sprain in January is any indicator, a ramp up might not be needed. — Dave McMenamin
Out since March 8 with a strained right hamstring
Ingram is still listed as out, but the team is hopeful he can return on the upcoming three-game homestand. The Pelicans are 5-17 when Ingram sits this season, but three of those wins have come in the past five games as the team has been able to lean on CJ McCollum. New Orleans has been a .500 team with Ingram this season (25-25) and also a .500 mark (5-5) with McCollum and Ingram together. As the Pelicans battle the Lakers for the No. 9 spot and home court for a play-in game, a healthy Ingram will give New Orleans an added boost. — Lopez
Out since Jan. 5 with a right knee injury
Nance had surgery on Feb. 11 after being traded in the deal with the Portland Trail Blazers that also sent McCollum to New Orleans. He has yet to play for the Pelicans this season, but he has been upgraded to probable and the team expects him to make his debut Thursday. Nance has been shooting and jumping for a couple of weeks as he prepares to make his Pelicans debut. Nance could slot in at power forward next to Jonas Valanciunas or Willy Hernangomez, or play alongside Jaxson Hayes, who the Pelicans have given starting power forward minutes to. It’s not out of the question to play Nance at the small forward spot with Hayes and Valanciunas, either. He’ll give the Pelicans another veteran presence as they make their final push. — Lopez
Has not played all season with a fractured right foot
There has been no timetable given for a return to play, if Williamson returns at all this season after fracturing the fifth metatarsal in his right foot in offseason workouts. Williamson has had setbacks throughout the year and his return has been constantly delayed. He returned to New Orleans earlier this month after spending nearly two months rehabbing in Portland. He was seen Wednesday playing one-on-one with player development coach Corey Brewer, elevating on his jump shot, going off the dribble and dunking multiple times. The Pelicans are a game behind the No. 9 Lakers, fighting for home court in a potential play-in matchup. — Lopez
Out since Feb. 16 with a fractured right thumb
Paul fractured his thumb in the final game before the All-Star break, an injury that was expected to sideline him for six to eight weeks. He might beat that timetable in making his return. He’s been going through shooting drills for the past two weeks and taking other steps toward getting back in game action. The Suns, meanwhile, haven’t just survived without Paul. Phoenix has thrived since the All-Star break, going 11-4 in that span and preventing any team from remotely threatening the Suns in the fight for the NBA’s best record. Paul’s absence might have even had a silver lining. The 36-year-old perennial All-Star point guard should have fresh legs for the playoffs, which the Suns will enter as title favorites. — Tim MacMahon
Image credits: John Bazemore/AP Photo; Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images; Brian Westerholt/USA TODAY Sports; Kamil Krzaczynski/USA TODAY Sports; Carlos Osorio/AP Photo; Ashley Landis/AP Photo; Jeff Chiu/AP Photo; Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY Sports; Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports; Chuck Cook/USA TODAY Sports; Chris Coduto/Getty Images