With just 5 to 6 games left in the regular season for each team, there is a mad scramble for position in the NBA’s Western Conference race, as 9 teams jockey for 5 slots – the 4th to 8th slots – in the playoffs. Over in the East, there is just a slight turbulence recorded as the teams are not as bunched together as they reach the homestretch.
The front-running Denver Nuggets (51-26), the Memphis Grizzlies (49-28) and the Sacramento Kings (47-30) have clinched playoff spots, and are seeded top three in the West. And then there’s mayhem as teams currently holding the 4th to 12th spots can still mathematically clinch the coveted 4th to 6th spots, enough to land them an automatic slot in the playoffs.
At the rate things are going, it will be a neck-to-neck race among the Phoenix Suns (42-35), the LA Clippers (41-37) and the defending champs Golden State Warriors (41-37) for the 4th spot. Whoever takes 4th spot has a homecourt advantage against the 5th, hence winning their last few games becomes extremely important.
The Suns appear to have the upper hand in this race against the Clippers and the Warriors. With Kevin Durant reporting back to active duty, the Suns’ starting five look close to invincible. And they have plenty of time to jell. If Durant, Devin Booker, Chris Paul and DeAndre Ayton can remain healthy, this team has what it takes to reach deep into the playoffs, possibly all the way to the crown.
The Clippers, on the other hand, are a Jekyll-and-Hyde team, with their shooters blowing hot or cold unexpectedly. Plus their second star Paul George still on the mend. He’s expected to rejoin the team on the 2nd round of the playoffs, if they make it past their first round opponent. But Kawhi Leonard is back. Russell Westbrook is showing the Lakers that he’s not a has-been, and that he simply wasn’t used the right way. And then there are shooters and speedsters and rim protectors a-plenty with this team. They too have the potential to go deep into the playoff match-ups. If George is able to rejoin the team, and the chemistry is right, this team has the potential to make it to the very top.
The Golden State Warriors are peaking just on time. They are a veteran team that knows when to cruise and when to step on the gas. Even without Andrew Wiggins, this team still has what it takes to get to the top. Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole will have the luxury of choosing their 1st round opponent. They could go for 5th place, and be pitted against Kevin Durant and the Suns. They could vie for the 6th slot, in which case they will be matched against the playoff newbie Sacramento Kings, or go down a notch to 7th, in which case, they will be pitted against the more physical Memphis Grizzlies. If Wiggins comes back in his best form, these Warriors should be a team to reckon with as well.
Three teams – the resurgent LA Lakers (39-38), the New Orleans Pelicans (39-38) and the Minnesota Timberwolves (39-39) – are zeroing in on the play-in slots. Unless they suffer a major catastrophe, these teams should be shoo-ins for the play-in.
The resurgent LA Lakers have been gobbling up victories of late, in an effort to get a clearer advantage in the playoffs. They are expected to finish the regular season at 7th place, and hence, be pitted against the Memphis Grizzlies. But their trade deadline acquisitions have been clear winners. They removed the negative energy in the locker room with the departure of Westbrook, and brought in D’Angelo Russell, Michael Beasely, Jared Vanderbilt, Rui Hachimura and Mo Bamba, all of whom appear to be great set-pieces that could support the Lebron James-Anthony Davis duo for the playoffs. This Lakers roster appears to be more than capable of holding their own against the Griz or the other heavyweights in the playoffs as well.
The New Orleans Pelicans are a young team with little experience in the playoffs. They are praying for the return of top star Zion Williamson, but have been – quite surprisingly – able to win enough games to still be in contention for the playoffs. With CJ McCollum providing great leadership and veteran presence, plus Brandon Ingram and Trey Murphy delivering the points, the Pels will certainly make it to the play-in.
The Minnesota Timberwolves, to my mind, are still an unfinished project. Their experiment with the twin towers concept, with Karl Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert together, has not been tested enough. But the emergence of Anthony Edwards, plus the arrival of veteran guard Mike Conley, appear to have given the Wolves a shot in the arm. They do not have enough experience in the playoff wars though.
Three teams – the Oklahoma City Thunder (38-40), the Dallas Mavericks (37-40) and the surprising Utah Jazz (36-41) are fighting tooth-and-nail for the final slot in the play-in. The Portland Trailblazers, who had briefly been on top of the leaderboard at the start of the race, have finally bowed out of contention, owing to a 4-game losing streak of late. As for the Jazz, it may still be mathemathically possible to contend, but recent actions seem to show that the team has decided to fade away as well.
Oklahoma and Dallas should fight it out for the 10th and last slot in the play-in. The Oklahoma Thunder has the cohesion and more significantly, the pride to make it over the talented, but totally out-of-sync Dallas Mavericks. The Thunder do not have a super-talented group, but they have great chemistry under their leader, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The Mavs, on the other hand, have arguably the best guard combo in the league, but Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving don’t seem to match up well. Kyrie appears to have acquired a jinxed image, after leaving Lebron and the Cleveland Cavs in search for a team he could lead. He failed miserably with both the Boston Celtics and the Brooklyn Nets, leaving a bad taste in the mouth with both teams as he left. I will not be surprised if the Mavs fall out of the play-in race, and Irving leaving the team; with the Lakers looming as the likely destination.
In the east, the Milwaukee Bucks (55-22), the Boston Celtics (54-24), the Philadelphia 76ers (51-26) and the Cleveland Cavaliers (48-30) have clinched playoff seats. The New York Knicks (45-33) should follow soon. There is an ongoing race between the Brooklyn Nets (42-35) and the Miami Heat (40-37) for the 6th spot, to avoid the play-in mini-tourney. The Atlanta Hawks (38-39), the Toronto Raptors (38-39) and the Chicago Bulls (37-40) look steady in the 8th to 10th spot, rounding up the play-in entries in the East.
The race for the playoffs in the west is becoming tighter and more interesting. With only a couple of games remaining, there is still no clear picture as to who gets to match-up against whom. The match-ups themselves will matter, with some teams having easier times against certain match-ups with other teams. This April 15, the ref’s whistle signals the start of the playoffs. Let’s all watch, and be entertained.
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I have in particular enjoyed watching the Lakers try to right their ship and stay out of the play-in tournament. Anthony Davis is doing his best to make that happen. There is still a lot to be decided regarding what the playoff match-ups will be as you noted Charles, and the last couple of weeks should be interesting as teams try to both rest and stay in sync going into the post-season. Hopeful the Sixers will stay healthy throughout!
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The Lakers are a joy to watch , now that they have some new guys who can really waltz with the rest. As for the Sixers, I think they will need another star to help them get past either Giannis or Tatum. But hope springs eternal. If Harris, Maxey steps up, who knows?
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watching my Miami Heat valiantly defy this late season fade, it’s like Jimmy Butler never got his breath back after that game 5 performance in the 2020 Finals lol
who’s your team btw?
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I was rooting for the Jazz early in the season. But it looks like they’re tanking now. The Sacramento Kings looks like a breath of fresh air. Young, aggressive, all newbies to playoff action. Always was a dummy for the underdog.
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