EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns own strong odds to advance in NBA In-Season Tournament

Nov 27, 2023, 6:49 AM | Updated: 1:45 pm

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns takes a shot against Jacob Gilyard #0 of the Memphis Grizzlies ...

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns takes a shot against Jacob Gilyard #0 of the Memphis Grizzlies during the first half of an NBA In-Season Tournament game at FedExForum on November 24, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images)

(Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images)

NBA In-Season Tournament action returned on Friday with little clarity on the Phoenix Suns’ chances of advancing but ended with their odds looking strong for the Western Conference’s sole wild card spot.

If you have been paying little attention to the tournament and/or desire a refresher, we are going to skedaddle through the format’s admittedly confusing-to-follow-in-real-time group stage dynamics ahead of the eight-team, single-elimination bracket that should pique more interest.

With one game remaining in group play, the Suns defeated the Memphis Grizzlies 110-89 on Friday to finish 3-1. The 4-0 Los Angeles Lakers had already clinched Phoenix’s Group A, meaning the Suns would be competing against a few other teams from Groups B and C for one wild card position and the tiebreaker of point differential would likely decide which 3-1 squad advances.

The Suns were aware of this, so even with the game in hand and a few minutes left on the clock, Phoenix’s key players stayed in with a 16-point lead and 4:24 to go, bumping that advantage to 21.

With Phoenix playing the first game of the day on Friday, every other team in the mix has had the opportunity to know what had to be done to get by the Suns because they were either wrapping up later on that day or not even until Tuesday, the last day of group play.

In the tournament’s first year, it is hopefully a learning lesson for the NBA to nullify that competitive advantage for everyone else and disadvantage for the Suns by having every team play its last game at the same time, just like the way European soccer tournaments do it.

Alas, the Suns seemed to have overcome that and should be moving on.

Here’s how the rest of Friday’s events unfolded, and a look ahead to what has to happen on Tuesday for Phoenix to move on.

Devin Booker’s NBA In-Season Tournament heroics (unknown at the time)

Following Phoenix’s victory on Friday, the attention turned to what scenarios in Group B and C could result in a team not winning its group at a 3-1 record while also winning the tiebreaker against the Suns.

With the first tiebreaker being head-to-head record in group play, thus not applying to the wild card positioning, the next one is point differential. The Suns ended at +34.

In Group B, the New Orleans Pelicans were atop it with a 2-1 record and +23 mark after defeating the 2-1 Denver Nuggets. But crucially, the 1-1 Houston Rockets got their win over the Pelicans, meaning Houston controlled its destiny to take two straight and win Group B. That meant even if the Pelicans won on Friday night, Houston could boot them down to the wild card race, where a close point differential to Phoenix was worrisome.

Houston played Denver at +9 on Friday, so either the Rockets won and opened the door for New Orleans to spoil the Suns or the Nuggets had to win by at least 25 to do their own version of it. The Rockets handily dispatched Denver ahead of New Orleans’ matchup in L.A. versus the Clippers in Friday’s late-night fixture.

This set up the Suns being a pair of steps away from getting eliminated. A Pelicans victory by 11 while scoring at least 133 points to take the secondary tiebreaker of total points scored or 12-plus and a Rockets win over the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday was the path to a Suns elimination.

New Orleans was up 21 less than 10 minutes in, a troubling development for the Suns before L.A. roared back and made it competitive again. The Pelicans went up nine with 2:10 to go but were seemingly still approaching it like a normal regular season game, trying to just do enough to get a win instead of being aware of the margin of victory holding tremendous significance.

With an eight-point lead, they forced a miss at eight seconds remaining and got a shout from the bench to score, finding a wide-open dunk at a second left as boos from unaware fans to get a 116-106 Pelicans win. That ended the Pelicans’ group play at 3-1 and +33, two points short of eclipsing the Suns in the wild card spot and putting them a Rockets win on Tuesday away from elimination.

As it turns out, Phoenix’s awareness for how much every point mattered saved itself not once but twice.

In the Suns’ one loss, Eric Gordon tossed up a or-so-we-thought meaningless 3-pointer as time expired. ESPN’s Mike Breen, arguably the greatest play-by-play voice in the game’s history, even said “and it won’t matter” as a part of his final call. But it very much did!

And on Friday, Booker pressed for his own triple in garbage time to make it a 40-point night.

If either shot doesn’t go in, the Suns would have been a Rockets victory away from getting eliminated because of the Pelicans being two points ahead. Instead, the Suns have a whole lot of security and will probably move on unless some crazy shenanigans unfold in Group C on Tuesday.

How Suns could still be eliminated on Tuesday

To start, the Group B results are irrelevant. If the Rockets lose to the Mavericks, they drop to 2-2 and are eliminated. A win bumps them to 3-1 for a Group B victory, sending the Pelicans out, as we previously covered.

In Group C, it’s the 3-0 Sacramento Kings, 2-1 Minnesota Timberwolves and 2-1 Golden State Warriors still sifting through possibilities. None of it should affect the Suns, though.

The Warriors travel to Sacramento while the Timberwolves face the Oklahoma City Thunder. The simple start point here is if the Timberwolves lose, the Suns are in. That’s it. Even if the Warriors won, they’d go to 3-1 and ahead of the 3-1 Kings, who only own a +29 point differential. By default, they couldn’t raise that in a loss to outdo the Suns.

If the Kings win, they are 4-0 and are top of Group C no matter what. They would obviously beat the Warriors, who drop to 2-2 and are finito. That would leave the Timberwolves, and if they reach 3-1, their rough -3 point differential means they’ve got to win by 37 and score at least 148 points or bump that to 38 or more. If not, the Suns advance.

What if the Timberwolves and Warriors both win, locking in a three-way tie of 3-1 teams?

Well, in the head-to-head tiebreaker, each team would be 1-1. Therefore, we would go to point differential in Group B itself. And since we know Sacramento can’t catch the Suns there, it would come down to both Minnesota and Golden State doing so. We covered the Timberwolves’ numbers, and for the Warriors, it’s either 120 points or more in a 29-point victory or winning by 30-plus.

Now, we see our fair share of blowouts these days, especially in this age of high volume 3-point shooting. Through play on Sunday, there have been a dozen games this season with a margin of victory reaching 30 and four hitting 40. And with the incentive for both teams to pursue a blowout unlike anything we’ve seen, who’s to say this is a done deal. Ultimately, it will come down to how much Minnesota and Golden State care to run it up. The Suns did, as have other teams.

This has already been a fascinating thought exercise of how much the “unwritten rules” of doing just that matters. You’ll remember Zion Williamson’s windmill at the buzzer against Phoenix last year ruffling a few feathers. Chicago Bulls guard DeMar DeRozan was losing to the Toronto Raptors on Friday and got upset when Toronto kept trying to score.

He was ejected and did not give a hoot about Toronto’s reasoning, citing “respect for the game.”

Still early days on this tournament getting off the ground!

Who will the Suns play if they advance?

As the wild card team, the Suns would take on the group winner with the best record, followed by other tiebreakers if necessary.

That leaves the 4-0 Lakers at +74. The Kings could also go 4-0 but at that +29 mark we touched on, it’s hard to envision a 45-point victory or more.

Phoenix would face the Lakers in L.A. on either Dec. 4 or 5 in the quarterfinals. The semifinals is when the tournament moves to a neutral site in Las Vegas for Dec. 7 matchups before the final on Dec. 9. A semifinal would entail the other remaining team out of the West while the final would be against the winner of the Eastern Conference side of the bracket. So far, the Indiana Pacers are the only squad to clinch a group win out East.

If the Suns are eliminated, the league will add two regular season games to their schedule across that week. Quarterfinals and semifinals games count for the regular season, just like group play did. The final does not and will be “Game No. 83” for each team to decide the first franchise winning the NBA Cup.

Each player on the winning side gets $500,000, while it drops to $200,000 for the runner ups, $100,000 for semifinalists and $50,000 to the quarterfinalists. That’s important money for Suns players on minimum contracts ranging from $2-3 million, and especially guys like Udoka Azubuike and Saben Lee on even cheaper two-way contracts that have a salary under $600,000.

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