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Fantasy Basketball: 2021 playoffs cheat sheet

Special to Yahoo Sports

This week marks almost the exact three-quarters mark of the 2020-21 NBA season which means the fantasy basketball playoffs are almost here. While roto-league managers still have a few more weeks to make one final push, it’s do-or-die time for those in head-to-head formats.

When it comes to tackling the postseason, it’s important to remember the core tenets that put you in contention for a fantasy championship in the first place. All season, you’ve kept up with player news, meticulously worked the waiver wire, analyzed schedule advantages, and ensured that your team is in the best position to rack up stats each and every night.

Each of those points is amplified even further in the playoffs. Just one small mistake could be the difference between living to see another week and your season coming to an end.

In this condensed, wildly unpredictable NBA season, there’s no magical formula to guarantee success in the fantasy playoffs, but let’s examine a few key strategy points to keep in mind as you prepare for Round 1.

Maximize the Schedule

Perhaps the single most important factor in succeeding in the fantasy playoffs is taking full advantage of the schedule. It’s crucial in weekly lineup leagues — and extremely crucial in leagues that allow for daily changes and transactions. After all, the entire goal is to accrue more fantasy production than your opponent, and while you may risk damaging your percentage categories, you’ll almost never regret squeezing an extra game or two out of your roster.

In weekly leagues, be sure to consult this weekly schedule grid before locking in any lineups. Take note of any schedule irregularities (like a two-game week or a five-game week) first and do what you can to take advantage. For instance, the Raptors are set to play only two games during the first week of the standard fantasy playoffs (starting April 19). Unless you’re really backed into a corner, you probably shouldn’t be starting any Raptors players — even Fred VanVleet or Pascal Siakam — if you have a reasonable four-game option on your roster. Even some mid-level three-game players could be safer plays.

Looking ahead, the schedule-makers hand the Raptors five games the following week (beginning April 26), while the Thunder and Mavericks also play five games. During the final week of the fantasy playoffs, the Pistons are the lone team with a five-game schedule. Rostering any players on a five-game week provides an inherent advantage, but keep in mind — in this condensed season of all seasons — that no players are guaranteed to play in all five of those games. It’s not always easy to project, but teams like Detroit and Oklahoma City will almost certainly spend the last few weeks of the season battling for ping pong balls, so in a five-game week that must include two back-to-backs, there’s a high probability that multiple key players won’t be available for all five of those games.

Meanwhile, teams like the Mavs and Raptors are very much in the thick of the playoff discussion and could very well still be battling for seeding — or even a spot in the postseason, in Toronto’s case — until the final days of the regular season. It’s still not a guarantee that Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis will play in all five games, but with the Mavs looking to do all they can to avoid the play-in tournament, the team will likely be more lenient when it comes to load management.

Luka Doncic could be in position to be a league-winner during the Mavericks’ five-game week. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

In daily lineup leagues, the schedule should also be a priority, and it can be approached even more aggressively. Your stars are your stars and they’ll be on your roster as long as they’re healthy, but when it comes to fringe-starters, fantasy managers shouldn’t hesitate to add or drop players on a near-game-to-game basis. Of course, you’ll have to be cognizant of the weekly transaction cap (in my Yahoo league, it’s four adds per week), but don’t be afraid to use the schedule to your advantage.

One specific way to do this is to break each week down into halves and focus on players whose teams’ schedules are either front- or back-loaded. For instance, if a player has games Monday, Tuesday, and Friday in a given week, consider dropping him on Wednesday and swapping him out for a comparable player whose team plays three times between Wednesday and Sunday. Just like that, you’ve turned a three-game week into a five-game week.

For a real-life example, let’s look at the final week of the fantasy playoffs (beginning May 3). The Warriors start the week with a Monday/Tuesday back-to-back (both at NOR) before playing Thursday (vs. OKC) and Saturday (vs. OKC). Fantasy managers could consider utilizing Andrew Wiggins for the two Pelicans games, then dropping Wiggins (it’s the final week of the season, mind you) and picking up a player from one of the 22 other teams that play three games between Wednesday and Sunday. You may not be in love with most of the available options (they’re free agents for a reason), but in most cases picking up the extra game will be worth the trouble.

Taking that same example to the extreme, a manager could drop Wiggins on Wednesday and perform a series of daily transactions to rack up as many as seven games played from one single roster spot. Again, keep in mind your league’s weekly transaction limits, but in theory, a manager could swap Wiggins for a player whose team plays Wednesday (24 teams are in action) and then continue to make a swap each day through the rest of the week (bench players could also be utilized, of course).

Overall, managers — especially those in deeper leagues — are best-suited saving some of those transactions for unexpected injuries or role changes, but if most of your roster is locked in and you want to get aggressive with a streaming spot down the stretch, the condensed schedule allows for it.

Analyze Risk vs. Reward

Whether you’re working the waiver wire or simply deciding which players on your roster to start, it’s vital to take into account team context. Early in the season, when all 30 teams are convinced the playoffs are a realistic goal, rest and role changes are much less of a concern. But as the calendar turns to April and May, teams near the top and bottom of the standings begin to shift their focus.

A four-game week for the Jazz or the Nets is all well and good on paper, but chances are Mike Conley, Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving aren’t playing in all four of those games. The same goes for key players on the Bucks, 76ers, Suns, and Clippers — all of which will likely lock up playoff spots in the coming week. Unfortunately, rest-related absences will likely only amplify as the start of the playoffs draws nearer. As a fantasy manager, there’s not much you can do, as players like Durant, Harden, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo are far too valuable when active to even consider dropping.

On the other end of the spectrum, high-lottery teams — like Detroit, Cleveland, Minnesota, Houston, and Oklahoma City — can be even more difficult to navigate. Though they’re not concerned about keeping players fresh for the playoffs, they are concerned about preserving their chances at a high draft pick. The league has cracked down on blatant tanking, but teams have found plenty of avenues to skirt the rules.

With the fantasy playoffs approaching, tread lightly with players like Christian Wood, John Wall, Kevin Love, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, Lu Dort, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Chances are, they won’t be completely Al Horford-ed out of the rotation, but fantasy managers should brace for some … questionable injury designations — especially in the final two weeks of the regular season.

If there’s a silver lining for fantasy managers, it’s that the play-in tournament, which includes seeds 7 through 10 in each conference, will keep more teams competitive until the end. Without the play-in, teams like Toronto (6.5 games behind the 8th seed), Washington (6.5 GB), and Cleveland (7.5 GB) would essentially be out of the race, but they’re only 2.0, 2.0, and 3.0 games, respectively, out of the 10th seed entering Thursday. Right now, those aforementioned five teams (ORL, DET, OKC, HOU, MIN) are the only true cross-offs, though the Kings (5.0 games behind the 10th seed) are doing their best to join that group.

Familiarize Yourself with the Opponent

In head-to-head leagues, this is hopefully something you’ve been doing all season, but its importance ramps up during the playoffs. Before your weekly matchup tips off, examine your opponent’s roster and determine if there are any categories in which you hold a significant advantage or disadvantage.

If your opponent is rostering Stephen Curry, Zach LaVine, and Joe Harris, there’s a pretty good chance they’re going to easily overwhelm you in the three-pointers category. As such, if you’re deciding between two middling options for your final starting spot, go with the player who has the best chance to contribute value in categories you can actually win. The same logic applies to your waiver wire pickups heading into the week.

Speaking of the wire, it’s imperative to take stock of your matchup on a daily basis throughout the week. Scoreboard watching isn’t always advisable, but in daily lineup leagues, knowing exactly where you stand in each category should inform your adds and drops as the week progresses. If you’re four days in and already trailing by 25 three-pointers, there’s no shame in declaring the category a loss and moving on. Grabbing Alec Burks or Terrence Ross probably isn’t going to swing the matchup in your favor. But if you’re close in rebounds and blocks, Daniel Theis or Mo Bamba or — dare I say it — Hassan Whiteside would make for more sensible pickups.

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