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West watch: Standings trending toward Suns-Lakers in 1st round

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns scores on a layup over Dennis Schroder #17 of the Los Angeles Lakers as LeBron James #23 and Markieff Morris #88 look on during the second quarter at Staples Center on March 02, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

We are seriously in the thick of it now, as the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns have, for the most part, distanced themselves from the Western Conference.

The main question for the Suns in the standings with five games now left is if they’ve got a real chance at leaping the Jazz, or perhaps even slipping to third.

It was mostly a shrug when that came down to playing the Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers or Golden State Warriors, but after Friday’s games, it looks like the seventh seed could very well be the Los Angeles Lakers. And that makes it a whole lot more interesting.

First, a look at how things are shaping up at the top before reviewing the Lakers’ odds of moving up and how they match up with the Suns.

1. Utah Jazz: 50-18

2. Phoenix Suns: 48-19 (1.5 GB)

3. Los Angeles Clippers: 45-23 (5.0 GB)

4. Denver Nuggets: 44-24 (6.0 GB)

Just because of the Clippers’ chances of hopping to second still being relatively possible, we’ll bunch up the teams that have secured homecourt for the first round.

Prior to Friday’s results, wins for the top three teams here, Basketball-Reference’s probabilities had the Suns at a 66.4% chance to land the number two seed. There’s a 17.0% opening for the first spot and 13.5% probability of them dropping to third.

Now, to divvy up the schedules in a simple way, the Suns have all their games left against teams with something to play for: the Lakers, Blazers, Warriors and Spurs twice. The Jazz only have two, with Golden State and Portland, while the Clippers have the Raptors and Hornets before snoozers against the Thunder and Rockets.

With that simple outlook, you can see Phoenix has the toughest schedule left by a good margin. So, even if the Jazz and Clippers are still down key names, it feels like second is where the Suns will land.

Now, let’s talk about who could potentially be the Suns’ opposition…

5. Dallas Mavericks: 40-28 (10.0 GB)

6. Portland Trail Blazers: 39-29 (11.0 GB)

7. Los Angeles Lakers: 37-30 (12.5 GB)

We will take a quick glance of the remaining games for this trio before my plea to Suns fans to give the Lakers the respect they deserve, as a narrative continues to grow that drawing them in the first round is decently favorable.

Dallas has a cakewalk left: Cleveland, Memphis, New Orleans, Toronto and Minnesota. That’s a big reason why Basketball-Reference’s simulations had them at 80.8% for the fifth seed prior to their win Friday night against the Cavaliers.

The Lakers lost the tiebreaker to the Blazers on Friday. They draw the Suns on Sunday before the Knicks, Rockets, Pacers and Pelicans. There’s a decent chance they are locked into the seventh seed after the game against New York.

The Blazers, winners now in six of their last seven games, have the toughest schedule left depending on how teams treat the matchup as the curtains close on the regular season. A huge game for the Spurs is on Saturday, then it’s a layup against the Rockets before the Jazz, Suns and Nuggets to close. If those last three teams already have their fates sealed, they could go rest-heavy.

Now, for Los Angeles and why you should not want the smoke.

Because of LeBron James and Anthony Davis failing to still be healthy at the start of May, perhaps there’s an opening there to knock ’em early. That’s the theory some are getting behind.

Now, James is just taking his time as needed. ESPN’s Dave McMenamin reported Thursday night James is missing these games to just stay off his ankle, following up head coach Frank Vogel saying James isn’t out due to his health. That all leans into the notion that if James would be playing right now if he had to be.

A quick couple of points on the Lakers.

They have the best defensive rating in the league despite James at 43 games played and Davis 32. Davis is one of the five best defenders on the planet while James would be on All-Defense if he didn’t miss this many games.

Stylistically, they are a big problem for the Suns. Because of that defense, they will restrict what the Suns do offensively, their worst side of the ball of the two. Phoenix rides the momentum of its defense to its offense, and defensively, the Suns don’t have good matchups for the two stars.

Deandre Ayton has the talent to defend Davis, sure. With that, though, would you really fully trust him to over the course of his first full playoff series?

As for James, I don’t really know. Mikal Bridges usually takes the toughest cover but James overpowers him relatively easily. Jae Crowder has spent time in the past with the matchup and can at least get physical with him. The Suns would give Torrey Craig stretches on James and he might be the best option, but that’s a detriment to the 0.5 elements of the offense where Crowder is much better. The hope would be that trio and a pinch of Cam Johnson possessions being enough to wear James down.

To look at one more potential concern, however, that being if the Lakers go supersized with Andre Drummond and Davis. That’s a rough ask for the Suns to go at that with the limited mobility and size of Frank Kaminsky and Dario Saric. Both of those guys can’t survive foot-speed-wise with Montrezl Harrell’s dives, either.

On offense, Ayton’s screen setting opening up Chris Paul and Devin Booker is the signature ingredient. So that’ll be Davis in ball screen defense and James on the free safety help, with the pesky Dennis Schroder on Paul. It’ll have to be a whole lot of the Suns’ win on Friday against the New York Knicks, with Ayton thriving on rolls to the rim and the shooters hitting their shots.

Two last reminders: We haven’t seen this matchup yet this season and we’re talking about James and Davis.

Even if James and Davis aren’t healthy, it’s LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

James is arguably the greatest player of all time, with the most playoff wins of any player ever: 172. That’s more than 22 other franchises, including the Suns’ 133. His record in a playoff series is 39-10 and he’s never been bounced in the first round. He has 17 games less of playoff experience (260) than the entire Suns roster combined (277).

James is coming off a Finals run last year where the Lakers lost five (5) total games and he averaged 27.6 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game while shooting 56.0% from the field. And Davis was just as good as him, an unstoppable defensive force that posted 27.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.2 steals a game.

Yes, they could be banged up. And no, they have not looked great in the past month-plus. But you do not want the Lakers. Trust me.

8. Golden State Warriors: 35-33 (15.0 GB)

9. Memphis Grizzlies: 34-33 (15.5 GB)

10. San Antonio Spurs: 32-35 (17.5 GB)

We will come back to this group next week, checking in on if the Suns are pushing the No. 1 seed before previewing potential play-in matchups. Remember, 8th plays 7th in the play-in, and if the 8th seed wins, they would become 7th.

Fun times ahead.


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