DENVER — The road to the NBA Finals now goes through Milwaukee. The road out of the Western Conference goes through Denver, for the first time ever.
And the rest of the top half of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket is set as well.
The Bucks will have the No. 1 overall seed and home-court advantage for the entirety of their time in the NBA playoffs, after beating Chicago 105-92 on Wednesday night. Milwaukee is 58-22 this season; no other team can get to more than 57 wins.
“It’s just a credit to the players,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “The players have really stepped up. I think they’ve embraced the challenge. Night in and night out in this league, it’s hard. There’s great opposition. ... To have the best record, it is something that matters. It is important.”
The No. 1 seed in the West was decided Wednesday night as well. The Nuggets will have home-court throughout the West playoffs, after New Orleans beat Memphis in overtime — and took away the last bit of hope the Grizzlies had of catching the Nuggets for the top spot out West.
The Bucks are a No. 1 seed for the first time since 2020. Denver has never previously been a No. 1 seed.
Boston (55-25) will be the No. 2 seed in the East, clinching that Wednesday by topping Toronto. That locked Philadelphia (52-27) into the No. 3 seed and a likely first-round matchup with Brooklyn. The Nets (44-36) beat Detroit and now need only one more win or one Miami loss to wrap up the No. 6 seed.
Another first-round Eastern Conference matchup was set earlier this week; No. 4 Cleveland will meet No. 5 New York. They'll meet on either April 15 or 16 for Game 1, with the NBA playoffs opening that weekend.
Still unclear in the East is the order of the teams headed to the play-in tournament, which starts Tuesday.
Miami is the leader and currently in seventh, ahead of the three other play-in bound teams — Atlanta, Toronto and Chicago. The winner of the No. 7 vs. No. 8 game on Tuesday (as it stands now, the matchup there would be Atlanta at Miami) will draw Boston in Round 1; the other team to emerge from the East play-in tournament will open against the top-seeded Bucks.
Clinching a seed now gives some teams the chance to rest players before the playoffs start, and in many cases, that figures to be welcomed. The Bucks won without Giannis Antetokounmpo on Wednesday and with Khris Middleton — who has battled injuries for much of the season — sidelined after eight minutes with a recurrence of knee pain.
“Now we get to take a breath,” Budenholzer said. "I have no idea what we'll do Friday and Sunday."
Chicago will be on the road to open the play-in tournament; the Bulls are locked into No. 10 in the East and will visit whichever team finishes ninth — Toronto or Atlanta.
And when the playoffs start for the Bucks, they’ll try to defy some recent trends. There hasn’t been a No. 1 seed to win the East title since Cleveland in 2016, and no team with the best regular-season record has gone on to win the NBA Finals since Golden State in 2017.
“I think we’re ready, well-prepared,” Bucks guard Jrue Holiday said. “I think we’ve been through a lot … really excited to be going into the postseason.”
Most of the drama remains in the West, where Denver, Memphis, Sacramento and Phoenix have clinched playoff spots — and eight teams are still in the running for the six remaining playoff or play-in berths.
Defending champion Golden State, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Los Angeles Lakers, New Orleans and Minnesota can do no worse than make the play-in tournament. Oklahoma City, Dallas and Utah are all vying for play-in berths.
For now, Golden State and the Clippers — both 42-38 — would be in the playoffs, while the Lakers, Pelicans, Timberwolves and Thunder would have the play-in spots. The Clippers beat the Lakers (41-39) on Wednesday night.
Dallas helped itself Wednesday by topping Sacramento 123-119. The Mavericks (38-42) remained 11th, but are tied with No. 10 Oklahoma City, both teams with two games left. Oklahoma City visits Utah on Thursday, Dallas plays host to Chicago on Friday, and then on Sunday the Thunder play host to Memphis while the Mavs entertain San Antonio.
“At this point in the season, it is what it is in terms of the reality of the standings,” Mavs guard Kyrie Irving said. “We just have to take it one minute at a time.”
New Orleans' win assured the Pelicans of no worse than a play-in berth.
“Is this crazy or what?” Pelicans broadcaster Joel Meyers mused after New Orleans' overtime win.
Out West, expect the crazy to continue all the way through the regular-season finales on Sunday.
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