West watch: Suns inch closer to No. 1 seed with Dallas, Denver streaking

Apr 6, 2021, 1:09 PM | Updated: 3:35 pm
Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams talks with his team before a game against the Houston Rocket...

Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams talks with his team before a game against the Houston Rockets in an NBA basketball game in Houston, Monday, April 5, 2021. (Troy Taormina/Pool Photo via AP)

(Troy Taormina/Pool Photo via AP)

This will be one of two weeks the Phoenix Suns will be able to directly influence the standings in the Western Conference the most.

That’s because the Suns take on the Utah Jazz Wednesday and the Los Angeles Clippers the day after, the first of a pair of back-to-back games this month for Phoenix against the teams currently sandwiching them in the standings.

Here’s the latest on how those two teams and the others 1-10 out West are faring lately:

1. Utah Jazz: 38-12

The Jazz could have played their part in hyping up Wednesday’s game even more by making Monday’s matchup against Dallas on Monday their 10th straight win to counter the Suns’ six-game streak, but they lost.

The Mavericks decided to let Utah swingman Royce O’Neale have space to shoot, and the key wing that was shooting 40.3% from deep on the season missed all eight of his three-point attempts. O’ Neale has been a reliable shooter on low volume but exposed something teams will look to take advantage of in the postseason.

Donovan Mitchell shot 0-for-8 on his own from 3 and 6-of-23 from the field overall. Add that onto Friday’s 7-for-21 night against the Chicago Bulls and the All-Star has cooled off a bit after an awesome March he averaged nearly 30 a game in.

2. Phoenix Suns: 35-14 (2.5 GB)

3. Los Angeles Clippers: 33-18 (5.5 GB)

(Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

The Clippers got bodied by the scary-looking Nuggets (more on them in a minute) on Thursday, which is why you have to take care of business against the Orlando Magic in the game prior. They did not, mustering only 96 points in a loss to a completely obliterated roster post-deadline.

Naturally, after boasting Los Angeles’ offensive superiority in this space last week, it also put up only 94 points in that Denver loss and then just 104 for a win over the Lakers on Sunday.

That league-best offensive rating out of the All-Star break was in large part due to the strong contributions of supporting pieces like Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris and Terance Mann, but now it also means the Clippers are relying on those guys when Kawhi Leonard and Paul George aren’t in peak form.

They’ve got some things to figure out offensively to prove that wasn’t a fluke.

4. Denver Nuggets; 31-18 (6.5 GB)

What doesn’t look like it’ll be a fluke is the effectiveness of the Nuggets’ new starting five with Aaron Gordon.

A hat tip to ESPN’s Zach Lowe for this ridiculous stat on the unit of Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Michael Porter Jr., Nikola Jokic and Gordon outscoring teams by 61 points (!!!!!) in the 90 minutes (!!!!!!!) it has played over four games.

Those are all wins, and anyone can take a vantage point of watching the Nuggets as of late and seeing that it just works.

Gordon already knows to cut for Jokic and can cover up some of the defensive holes the Serbian can be prone to leave.

The cutting in particular has always been a legitimate skill for Gordon like it is for the Suns’ Mikal Bridges and he’s now in the perfect place for it to thrive. Jokic had six assists to Gordon alone in Denver’s victory Sunday versus the Magic.

Here’s more from The Ringer’s Dan Devine on what Gordon unlocks.

It was a tall task for defenses to figure out how to stop Jokic and Murray, on top of worrying about a guy like Porter who can score on anyone, and now Gordon’s adds a whole other dimension.

5. Los Angeles Lakers: 31-19 (7.0 GB)

Every win for the Lakers against a half-decent team without LeBron James and Anthony Davis feels like that quick gasp of breath above water before sinking back down.

That was a 115-94 result over the Kings on Friday. Kyle Kuzma had a season-high 30 points and more consistency from him would be welcome for Los Angeles.

With Dallas surging, though, the Lakers are still trending downward.

6. Portland Trail Blazers: 30-19 (7.5 GB)

(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

While the return of Jusuf Nurkic and C.J. McCollum leads to the logic of Portland avoiding the play-in and hopping above the Lakers, they’re still close enough to smell it at the moment. That’s noteworthy looking at their schedule.

Prior to Tuesday’s action, the Blazers have 23 games remaining. That includes two against the Jazz, Clippers and Nuggets, three meetings with Memphis and one versus Phoenix, Boston, Brooklyn, Miami and the Lakers late enough in the season where they could have James and/or Davis back. That’s 14 of those 23 games, giving Portland the third toughest schedule the rest of the way.

They start with the Clippers and Jazz this week.

7. Dallas Mavericks: 28-21 (9.5 GB)

The only team out West besides Denver and Phoenix to go undefeated in our last cumulative week was Dallas.

When awards season starts to pick up, the Mavericks’ Jalen Brunson will get more Sixth Man of the Year attention. Over Dallas’ four wins this past week, Brunson averaged 18.8 points and shot 60.9% from the field. On the year, he’s up to 13.0 points a night on a field goal percentage of 53.8%.

Brunson not only gives the Mavericks what they desperately needed in another reliable ball-handler besides Luka Doncic, but he’s a legitimate scoring threat as well:

To go back to Portland’s difficult remaining schedule, Dallas has the easiest in the league.

8. Memphis Grizzlies: 24-23 (12.5 GB)

The Grizzlies played the Jazz in three games over six days and lost ’em all to close out March. But after that last defeat, they beat the Timberwolves and then got a strong road win in Philadelphia against the Embiid-less Sixers. In that victory, no Memphis player scored more than 17 points and they held Philadelphia to 100.

Memphis continues to flutter around .500, but hope is on the horizon. Third-year big Jaren Jackson Jr. said this week that it’s looking like he will return sometime in April. Jackson has not played all season after tearing his left meniscus in August and is a big part of what the Grizzlies do as the present and future No. 2 alongside young star Ja Morant.

9. San Antonio Spurs: 24-24 (13.0 GB)

(Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

Keep your head on a swivel for falling objects like the Spurs.

They had back-to-back losses in overtime to Atlanta and Indiana and responded to that by getting the doors blown off them by the 18-32 Cavaliers at home on Monday.

A stretch of eight losses in their last 10 games has San Antonio on a certified tumble, and what does it get next for its troubles?

Two straight games in Denver before going to Dallas. Ouch.

10. Golden State Warriors: 23-27 (15.0 GB)

“You cannot play the way that we’ve played the last significant stretch and expect things to change. So it kind of is what it is. We got to make the necessary adjustments. It sucks right now. Losing sucks. It’s a terrible feeling in the locker room. We don’t really have much to smile about. And it’s kind of the vibe right now.”

That doesn’t sound good!

That’s Stephen Curry after the Warriors’ loss on Sunday that made it seven in their last eight games.

Next two up

These last two spots will essentially boil down to a who can screw it up less. Do you know who failed that challenge lately? The Sacramento Kings! I know, shocker! The Kings (22-29, 16.5 GB) dropped four straight after winning five in a row. The Pelicans (22-27, 15.5 GB) are the only ball club of the last four that isn’t on a downward spiral at the moment, so for now, that’s a success.

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