EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

West watch: Jamal Murray injury changes Suns’ postseason picture

Apr 13, 2021, 2:27 PM | Updated: 2:38 pm
Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) is helped off the floor during the second half of an NBA bas...

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) is helped off the floor during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco, Monday, April 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

It was a brutal development in Denver at the start of this week with point guard Jamal Murray indeed out for the year due to a torn ACL.

The Nuggets are fresh off an appearance in the Western Conference Finals, and with Nikola Jokic the frontrunner for MVP, they were certifiable contenders. The stars align for a title window rarely for small-market franchises like the Nuggets, so for it to be taken away like this is awful. Just a huge bummer, both for them and basketball fans.

The injury is a huge shift to the dynamic of the Western Conference playoff picture. Outside of the Los Angeles Lakers, the trend since the trade deadline had been moving closer and closer toward the Nuggets being the other team nobody wanted to see out West.

Here’s a look at the last week for the 1-10 teams in the standings:

All statistics via NBA.com/stats

1. Utah Jazz: 40-14

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Including Utah’s dramatic OT loss to the Phoenix Suns, the Jazz come into Tuesday having lost three of their last five games.

That includes their second loss in a month to the Washington Wizards (!) on Monday. Bradley Beal (34 points) and Russell Westbrook (25) combined for 59 points, a similar two-headed monster outing to Phoenix’s.

For Suns fans drooling at the potential of a No. 1 seed, the Jazz have a “get right” stretch of the schedule with Oklahoma City on Tuesday and Indiana on Friday before back-to-back games against the shorthanded Lakers. That’s followed by a game in Houston and two straight versus Minnesota.

2. Phoenix Suns: 38-15 (1.5 GB)

3. Los Angeles Clippers: 37-18 (3.5 GB)

The Suns are going to have to do a certain amount of work on their own to hold the two seed, and now it could very well be two teams battling it out for homecourt in their potential second-round series.

The Clippers entered Tuesday having won five straight, with Paul George coming off Western Conference Player of the Week honors via 33.7 points and 5.7 assists per game. George has a nagging toe injury and didn’t rule out the possibility of it being an issue the rest of the season, so that’s an encouraging sign for the Clippers.

4. Denver Nuggets: 34-20 (6.0 GB)

As mentioned in the first iteration of this post, Denver doesn’t have a lot of depth on the perimeter. Rookie Facundo Campazzo started the last three games Murray missed, leaving Monte Morris as the sole ball-handler coming off the bench.

Campazzo and Morris are not shot creators, which is a portion of why Murray’s absence will be so significant. It’ll be more bucket-getting on Michael Porter Jr.’s shoulders and, sigh, probably Aaron Gordon too after he looked like he had finally found his perfect role as the fourth option. Their numbers the next few weeks will be ones to monitor.

5. Los Angeles Lakers: 33-21 (7.0 GB)

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The Lakers continue to win just enough to stay afloat without LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Saturday’s over the Brooklyn Nets should go down as their best of the regular season. They blew out Brooklyn 126-101, hitting 19 3s and had eight players score in double figures, including 17 points from Ben McLemore (!) and a 20-point, 11-rebound outing in 22 minutes for Andre Drummond.

As for James and Davis, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported a potential return for Davis somewhere around late April and James in the start of May.

6. Portland Trail Blazers: 31-22 (8.5 GB)

Is the regression to the mean coming for Portland?

Damian Lillard’s historic season in crunch time has been carrying the Blazers to a record that doesn’t represent how good they’ve been this year, and prior to Tuesday, they lost four out of six.

To spend a second straight week on their schedule, they’ve got a brutal stretch of competitive opponents coming up over the next two weeks: Boston, San Antonio, Charlotte, the Clippers, Denver, Memphis, Memphis again, Indiana and Memphis a third time before Brooklyn, Boston and Atlanta. Every team there is right around .500 or over it.

All the trends suggest they’re going to be in the play-in, and if the Suns hold the No. 2 spot, they’re my current pick as to who they’ll face in the first round.

7. Dallas Mavericks: 29-24 (10.5 GB)

Dallas suddenly lost three of four after being one of the hottest teams in the NBA. The first two defeats were in a tie game and under two minutes to go against the Rockets, followed by San Antonio’s DeMar DeRozan doing this on Sunday:

In a running theme of this space, those losses hurt more because then the Mavs on Monday proceed to shoot 25.0% from 3 against Philadelphia when Joel Embiid drops 36 points in 26 minutes on their noggin. Gotta take care of business against inferior opponents if you want to climb up this region of the standings.

8. Memphis Grizzlies: 27-25 (12.0 GB)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

After Memphis was beating the Knicks in New York on Friday almost all game and then lost in overtime, it gave up 45 points the first quarter of a loss at home to the Pacers on Sunday. The Grizzlies got a win back Monday while hosting the Bulls.

They continue to refuse to get really hot or cold to look past a record of .500 or near it. It’s difficult to take them seriously as a play-in team that could present a real challenge until they start to group some wins together.

9. San Antonio Spurs: 26-26 (13.0 GB)

Since March 10 when Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said LaMarcus Aldridge had played his last game with San Antonio, the team’s regular starting five over 200 minutes of play is outscoring teams by 6.3 points per 100 possessions. It’s a group not quite setting the world on fire, but figuring things out.

As a team, though, the Spurs have a -2.4 net rating across those 20 games. Even if they’ve got a core five that works, that hasn’t been good enough. Well, for now at least. That stuff matters, and maybe that cohesion building will be enough for them to position themselves better for the play-in tournament.

10. Golden State Warriors: 26-28 (14.0 GB)

So, Stephen Curry is currently averaging 39.5 points per game for his first six games of April. Three of those last four were Warriors wins.

Golden State continues to show its limitations, and there’s no optimism for them escaping the play-in range, but it’s hard to imagine Curry allowing them to slide out of it if he’s healthy.

Next two up

The New Orleans Pelicans (25-29, 15.0 GB) remain near enough to make the Warriors sweat, while the Sacramento Kings (22-32, 18.0 GB) have dropped seven in a row.

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