EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

West watch: Suns’ potential opponents starting to become clear

May 12, 2021, 10:21 PM | Updated: 10:23 pm
LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 09: Mikal Bridges #25 of the Phoenix Suns shoots againsst Kentavious Caldwell...
LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 09: Mikal Bridges #25 of the Phoenix Suns shoots againsst Kentavious Caldwell-Pope #1 and Talen Horton-Tucker #5 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half at Staples Center on May 9, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

The cement is starting to dry!

We’re starting to lock in some certainty with 2-3 games left for the top teams in the Western Conference. And the fact that we still can’t fully do that yet speaks to how much the play-in absolutely rocks.

Let’s quickly dive in on where there’s some sturdiness and what’s left to be decided.

1. Utah Jazz: 50-20

2. Phoenix Suns: 48-21 (1.5 GB)

3. Los Angeles Clippers: 46-23 (3.5 GB)

4. Denver Nuggets: 45-24 (4.5 GB)

Here’s where we’re at using magic numbers.

The Jazz’s for the No. 1 seed is 2, meaning that two combined Jazz wins or Suns losses seal the deal. Phoenix owning the tiebreaker gives the Suns a last gasp of a chance, but the Jazz wrap with the Thunder and Kings. So, yeah. Not happening probably.

The Suns’ for the No. 2 seed is also 2. The Clippers’ possession of the tiebreaker makes the Suns slipping not totally ruled out, a potentially weird proposition for how they’ll handle their back-to-back in San Antonio to end the season.

The Suns might want to rest some guys. Do they anyway, though, if a run at the first seed is still alive? What about the chance of dropping to third?

Now, something to start paying attention to is looking at this like a bracket. The Clippers are quite obviously a worse matchup for the Suns than the Nuggets. Denver owns the tiebreaker, so they just need to catch a game to take the third seed.

The problem is the Clippers conclude with Charlotte, Houston and Oklahoma City. With the 37 combined wins the Rockets and Thunder have, you’d need to manifest nine wins out of thin air to match the Clippers’ 46.

That game against the Hornets, 4 p.m. on Thursday, is the one if there’s any chance of late movement.

5. Portland Trail Blazers: 41-29 (9.0 GB)

6. Dallas Mavericks: 41-29 (9.0 GB)

7. Los Angeles Lakers: 40-30 (10.0 GB)

(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The Blazers end the year with the Suns on Thursday and Denver on Sunday, who could both have something to play for that we outlined earlier.

As for the Mavericks, they need a Blazers loss in one of those, because Portland has the tiebreaker. It’s a breeze for Dallas to finish with the Raptors and Timberwolves, so there’s a shot.

One win for Portland and Dallas or one more loss for the Lakers and we’re strapped in with the Lakers at the seventh spot and a play-in berth.

Los Angeles could move up with two losses by one of those teams and a 2-0 finish for itself, but after Sunday’s win against the Suns, I’m guessing the Lakers are cool with seventh.

And while they deserve a lot of focus and have been the topic of conversation on the bottom-half of the playoff teams, let’s review two others who are surging and should be treated as bigger threats than where they are seeded.

First up is Portland.

After giving them the benefit of the doubt over halfway through the season that they’d eventually figure it out, the Blazers got healthy 40-ish games in. And yet, they still were that inconsistent team playing terrible defense.

But after beating the Jazz on Wednesday night, Portland is on their best run of the season, winners in nine of its last 10 games.

In 329 minutes, the starting five of Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Norman Powell, Robert Covington and Jusuf Nurkic has a 13.6 net rating.

Since the trade deadline acquisition Powell debuted on March 26, the three-point shooting numbers for the Blazers really stand out. Looking at the top eight players in minutes per game outside of Nurkic and Enes Kanter, Lillard (42.0%), McCollum (36.6%), Powell, (34.5%), Covington (38.8%), Carmelo Anthony (44.7%) and Anfernee Simons (44.9%) are all consistently drilling those long balls.

Going off that same March 26 date, Portland is first in offensive rating and a respectable 16th in defensive rating since then. Those are rankings representative of a team that could win a playoff series or two.

The Blazers have got a superstar who can take over a series all while things are coming together as a team at the perfect time.

Speaking of that…

8. Golden State Warriors: 37-33 (13 GB)

9. Memphis Grizzlies: 36-33 (13.5 GB)

10. San Antonio Spurs: 33-36 (16.5 GB)

(Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Here’s where the fun is. The Warriors and Grizzlies are 1-1 against each other, a tiebreaker they will settle in a matchup that’s also their respective regular-season finales on Sunday.

Golden State has only New Orleans before that while it’s a home back-to-back for Memphis against Sacramento. No matter what, the Warriors will have a chance to win that game Sunday for the eighth position.

We will end on the Warriors coming to form.

In conversations the last few months and on our podcast, I’ve briefly floated my thoughts on the Warriors being a scarier than you’d think playoff matchup for the Suns in the first round based on them throwing Draymond Green at the 5. That’s a “now what?” moment for the Suns, and I think there’s a real chance it could be a 6-7 game war as opposed to a breeze in 4-5 games.

Tuesday’s loss for Phoenix to Golden State emphasized that a bit, but because of rookie James Wiseman’s season-ending injury, it’s easier for the Warriors to go small now without feeling obligated to give a very talented and raw No. 2 overall pick some minutes.

As Blue Wire Podcasts’ Sam Esfandiari pointed out, the Warriors since Wiseman went down in mid-April are No. 1 in the league in defensive and net rating. Esfandiari goes on to note how this has simplified things for the Warriors through one style of play the two lead guys know very well.

And as he later says, this is still a Golden State team that only goes eight-deep and the scoring options outside of Stephen Curry are that of a 25-win team, so there are obvious limitations.

With that said, they’re fully back to playing Warriors basketball, doing so with one of the league’s best defenses and Curry.

Whoever draws them is going to be in for much more of a battle than we would have thought a few months ago.

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