West watch: Suns hold No. 2 spot as regular season’s last month arrives
We have arrived at the closing stretch, where some teams will need to go on runs to prevent us from beginning to cement some of them in the standings.
The Phoenix Suns will look to do their part in that by holding a top-two seed through a brutal East Coast road trip that began with a wild overtime win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday.
Let’s dive in on the latest for their competition in the Western Conference:
1. Utah Jazz: 43-15
Prior to a rematch on April 30 against the Suns, Utah has a nice stretch. A game against Houston on the road is followed by two days off and then the Jazz have a day between each game for two versus Minnesota and one in Sacramento.
That couldn’t come at a better time after Donovan Mitchell suffered a right ankle sprain on Saturday that is expected to have him miss several games, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
This light run in the schedule and the opposite for Phoenix might allow the Jazz to hold this position while Mitchell gets healthy.
2. Phoenix Suns: 41-16 (1.5 GB)
3. Los Angeles Clippers: 40-19 (3.5 GB)
Suns fans, rightfully so, will remain invested in the Clippers’ fate each night given they are the team on Phoenix’s tail, but it matters too in terms of where their Los Angeles counterpart could land.
It did not seem realistic for the Lakers to be able to get to No. 3 without Anthony Davis and LeBron James for this long, but they’ve won just enough to remain within range. The Clippers, however, have done their job, going 8-1 in their last nine games.
Given the Suns’ difficult schedule, the two spot is the most likely position for them to land, and avoiding a potential Lakers meeting until the Western Conference Finals should be of interest to every team in this area.
Tuesday for the Clippers in Portland is the first game of a back-to-back before traveling back home to take on the Grizzlies, and they’ll be doing it without Kawhi Leonard, who will be re-evaluated next week due to right foot soreness.
4. Denver Nuggets: 37-20 (5.5 GB)
The Nuggets have won three straight since Jamal Murray was ruled out for the rest of the year, including a double-overtime win over Memphis on Monday with a 47-point outing from Nikola Jokic.
In the victories, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging 22.3 points per game on 60.0% shooting. They’ll need him to continue as a legitimate second option in order to not start falling down the standings.
5. Los Angeles Lakers: 35-23 (8.0 GB)
The Lakers’ last 11 games: loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win and loss. They’ll definitely take that, and especially because it’s coming through defense.
Looking at each team’s previous 11 games entering Tuesday, Los Angeles ranks fourth in defensive rating. It was an underrated part of the Lakers’ championship run last year, and it looks like they’ve still got that gear in them, something Frank Vogel’s teams have always been capable of.
On Monday, Vogel said Davis and James are both doing some elements of work on the court, with Davis looking to “build up” towards the Lakers’ next game on Thursday.
6. Portland Trail Blazers: 32-24 (10.0 GB)
This year’s sixth seed is starting to look like last year’s eighth seed, where we’re all sitting around waiting to see if someone is going to take advantage of the clear opportunity to snatch it.
To not fully put this on the Blazers, we’ve talked for two weeks now about how their schedule is brutal, and they’ve lost five of seven. Their next two? A back-to-back at home with the Clippers on Tuesday and Nuggets the next day.
Over those seven Blazers games, Damian Lillard is shooting 35.2% and averaging 20.2 points per game. He only played in five of them, though, as Lillard would miss his third straight game on Tuesday due to tendinopathy in his right hamstring.
7. Dallas Mavericks: 30-26 (12.0 GB)
They are who we thought they were?
That’s what you can say if you had doubts about the Mavericks, because after they were one of the hottest teams in the league, they have also gone 2-5 in their last seven games.
This isn’t the first time this season that Luka Doncic has said something like this about Dallas:
Luka Doncic says energy is an issue for the slumping Mavs. How do you fix that? “I don’t know, but all I know is it’s got to start with me,” he said. “I’ve got to do way better, keeping guys motivated. It starts with me.”
— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) April 19, 2021
8. Memphis Grizzlies: 29-27 (13.0 GB)
In that aforementioned loss to Denver, the Grizzlies got a big boost back with the return of former Suns guard De’Anthony Melton. He had 25 points, eight rebounds, six assists and four steals in his first game in over two weeks after being sidelined with leg soreness.
Melton will be one of the names you hear in the Sixth Man of the Year conversation.
This season the 22-year-old is posting 18.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.3 steals per 36 minutes on 48.3% from the field and 46.3% at three-point range. The per 36 is necessary because Melton only gets 20.5 minutes a night, which makes sense with Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, Grayson Allen, Desmond Bane and Tyus Jones all vying for minutes.
Even though the Grizzlies don’t have high-end superstars at the moment as their young talent develops, they’re very deep.
9. Golden State Warriors: 29-29 (14.0 GB)
Stephen Curry remains supernova this month, thrusting himself into the MVP conversation while the Warriors have won six of their last eight games.
Curry is now putting up 40.8 points per game in his 10 outings for April on 55/50/91 shooting splits. Logically, Super Saiyan Curry lets other guys get in an easier rhythm. That has been the case this month for Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre Jr., who are combining to average 32.6 points per game while shooting above 45%.
Given Golden State’s struggles and limited options elsewhere, that’s the only real recipe for it to make any noise this postseason, but with Curry playing at this level, it’s possible.
10. San Antonio Spurs: 28-28 (14.0 GB)
It’s been a big couple of days for the Spurs, who finally found a ledge to grab onto as they tumbled down the standings.
San Antonio beat the Suns on Saturday and made it two in a row on Monday with a convincing win against the Pacers.
Keep an eye on a big one Saturday, with the Spurs going to New Orleans to take on the Pelicans, who are directly below them for the last play-in spot.
Next two up
New Orleans (25-32, 17.5 GB) is threatening on making this section cease to exist, with Sacramento (23-34, 19.5 GB) not coming anytime soon, either.