The wild Western Conference playoff race: Blazers bubbling up, Suns surging, Grizzlies less fierce by the day

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The postseason doesn’t start until Aug. 17, but for the teams fighting for the final spot in the Western Conference, every game has a playoff feel. After a week of games in Orlando, the Memphis Grizzlies are reeling, the Phoenix Suns are surging and the radically reimagined San Antonio Spurs are still trying to keep their 22-year playoff streak alive.

On Thursday, Zion Williamson’s playoff chances took another hit. He rumbled to the rim for 24 points in 22 minutes, but the New Orleans Pelicans were doomed by dismal defense in a 140-125 loss to the Sacramento Kings, who remain (technically) in the race.

Other relevant results: Damian Lillard scored 45 points and the emerging Gary Trent Jr. added 27 in a 125-115 win against the Denver Nuggets‘ B team. Phoenix meanwhile, stayed undefeated with a 114-99 win over the Indiana Pacers, with Mikal Bridges earning the distinction of becoming the first defender to slow down T.J. Warren in months.

Seven nights of seeding games remain, and then there will almost certainly be a play-in scenario. (To avoid one, the eighth-place team must finish the season four games ahead of the ninth-place team.) Here is a detailed look at the six squads involved:

8. Memphis: 32-37, 0-4 in bubble

So far: Lost to Blazers (140-135, OT), lost to Spurs (108-106), lost to Pelicans (109-99), lost to Jazz (124-115)

One-sentence summary: The happiest story in the NBA took a terrible turn, with two heartbreaking losses, way too many fouls and, worst of all, Jaren Jackson Jr.’s season-ending injury.

Upcoming opponents: Thunder (Friday, Aug. 7, 4 p.m.*), Raptors (Sunday, Aug. 9, 2 p.m.), Celtics (Tuesday, Aug. 11, 6:30 p.m.), Bucks (Thursday, Aug. 13, TBD)

Odds of finishing eighth after seeding games, per SportsLine’s Stephen Oh: 32.15 percent

Odds of finishing ninth after seeding games, per SportsLine’s Stephen Oh: 41.22 percent

One highlight: OK, this is technically two highlights: Jackson sending Williamson to the floor with a spin move, then Jackson blowing by Williamson for a dunk:

I admit that is a little sad to watch now.

Bubble take: The Grizzlies are not whole. As fun as Ja Morant and Jackson were before the hiatus, the two cornerstones did not drag them into the playoff race by themselves. In the 43-game stretch that defined the season, Memphis had the third-best bench in the NBA. In the bubble, its bench has been bleeding points, suddenly shallower and less organized than it used to be.

There are a few factors: Tyus Jones has been out with knee soreness, forcing Kyle Anderson and De’Anthony Melton to play point with the second unit. The Grizzlies also miss Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill, the veteran forwards they traded for Justise Winslow at the deadline. Winslow was supposed to make his Memphis debut in Orlando, but he hurt his hip in practice.

Despite the depth problem, the Grizzlies’ first two games went down to the wire, and they might be in a much better position had Dillon Brooks not fallen for DeMar DeRozan’s patented pump fake at the worst possible time:

Morant has been electric as usual, but these games highlight his need to improve his 3-point shot. He went 1-for-7 from deep against Portland and 1-for-10 against New Orleans, with defenders backing off and going under screens. 

It would be unfair, though, to single out Morant’s iffy shooting. Only the Los Angeles Lakers have shot worse than Memphis’ 30.1 percent mark in Orlando, and Grizzlies not named Grayson Allen have shot just 23.8 percent.

Allen, by the way, has been a pleasant surprise. He had a combined 37 points and shot 11-for-14 from deep against the Pelicans and Jazz, and he figures to be a helpful part of the rotation next season. If you can look past the disappointment of Jackson’s injury and the increasingly real possibility that the Grizzlies fall all the way out of the playoff picture, their future seems as bright as ever. 

9. Portland: 32-38, 3-1 in Orlando, 0.5 games behind MEM

So far: Beat Grizzlies (140-135, OT), lost to Celtics (128-140), beat Rockets (110-102), beat Nuggets (125-115)

One-sentence summary: Jusuf Nurkic looks like himself, Gary Trent Jr. is a revelation and Lillard always seems to find a way … but defensive problems persist under the hood. 

Upcoming opponents: Clippers (Saturday, Aug. 8, 1 p.m.), 76ers (Sunday, Aug. 9, 6:30 p.m.), Mavericks (Tuesday, Aug. 11, 5 p.m.), Nets (Thursday, Aug. 13, TBD)

Odds of finishing eighth after seeding games, per SportsLine’s Stephen Oh: 58.75 percent

Odds of finishing ninth after seeding games, per SportsLine’s Stephen Oh: 25.73 percent

One highlight: Totally normal and-1 from Lillard right here:

Bubble take: Lillard has never been more in command of Portland’s offense, as evidenced by his 16 assists against Boston and his 45-point, 12-assist line against Denver. Trent is the best individual story of the restart — in four games, he has averaged 20.3 points while shooting 22-for-35 (62.9 percent) from 3-point range and appearing to relish difficult defensive assignments. Nurkic, showing almost no signs of rust, makes Terry Stotts’ system make sense. 

This is not to say there are no flaws. I’d feel a lot better about the Blazers’ rotation if they could start Trevor Ariza, who opted out, next to Trent. As it stands, Portland is thin on the wing and logjammed in the frontcourt — Carmelo Anthony, maker of a few recent clutch shots, has been starting at small forward, and Anfernee Simons and Mario Hezonja have taken turns as the eighth man.

The glass-half-empty view is that the Blazers’ lights-out shooting has papered over the porous defense — they have surrendered 117.6 points per 100 possessions, an awful number — that will eventually be their downfall. They likely will not keep making 47.2 percent of their 3s, the main driver of their best-in-the-bubble offense. Their latest victory would feel more significant if the Nuggets were not missing four of their starters and hadn’t sat Nikola Jokic for the whole fourth quarter. 

But appeals to luck and sample size ring somewhat hollow when the subject at hand is an eight-game sprint toward the playoffs. Portland doesn’t have to turn into a defensive juggernaut to qualify for the postseason; it just needs to finish eighth or ninth and get through the play-in. 

One weird, potentially crucial note: The Blazers have the tiebreaker over the Pelicans (and, less importantly, the Kings) simply because they played two more games in the pre-hiatus portion of the season.

10. Phoenix: 30-39, 4-0 in Orlando, 1.5 games behind POR, 2 behind MEM  

So far: Beat Wizards (125-112), beat Mavericks (117-115), beat Clippers (117-115), beat Pacers (114-99)

One-sentence summary: Two clutch wins have made the Suns one of the best stories in the bubble, and Devin Booker‘s Kobe-like turnaround over Paul George and Kawhi Leonard is the restart’s most iconic moment. 

Upcoming opponents: Heat (Saturday, Aug. 8, 7:30 p.m.), Thunder (Monday, Aug. 10, 2:30 p.m.), 76ers (Tuesday, Aug. 11, 4:30 p.m.), Mavericks (Thursday, Aug. 13, TBD)

Odds of finishing eighth after seeding games, per SportsLine’s Stephen Oh: 5.01 percent

Odds of finishing ninth after seeding games, per SportsLine’s Stephen Oh: 13.50 percent

One highlight: You already know:

Bubble take: Those of us who babbled on about how the Suns shouldn’t have even been invited to Orlando sure feel stupid now. Everything about this trip has gone according to plan for Phoenix, and it doesn’t even need to make it to the play-in to leave campus with valuable experience. Already, the young players have been playing meaningful basketball, and they’ve handled it exceptionally. 

There are so many things to rave about. Here’s a non-exhaustive list:

  • Deandre Ayton‘s improvement as a defender and newfound willingness to shoot 3s
  • Bridges’ all-world defense, in his second season
  • Bridges becoming more comfortable putting the ball on the floor
  • Booker’s footwork, foul-drawing and playmaking 
  • Ricky Rubio‘s steady hand
  • Dario Saric, sixth man
  • Cameron Payne, reviving his career

Who thought the Suns were capable of anything like this without Kelly Oubre and Aron Baynes? Maybe they’re getting lucky with opponent 3-point shooting, maybe their magical run won’t continue now that they have the league’s attention, maybe their road is just too tough because the Grizzlies own the tiebreaker against them. No team on this list has been more impressive, especially relative to its pre-bubble expectations. 

11. San Antonio: 29-38, 2-2 in Orlando, 1.5 games behind POR, 2 behind MEM

So far: Beat Kings (129-120), beat Grizzlies (108-106), lost to 76ers (132-130), lost to Nuggets (132-126)

One-sentence summary: The freshest team in Orlando, San Antonio is starting four guards, speeding things up and shooting better than anyone could have reasonably expected. 

Upcoming opponents: Jazz (Friday, Aug. 7, 1 p.m.), Pelicans (Sunday, Aug. 9, 3 p.m.), Rockets (Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2 p.m.), Jazz (Thursday, Aug. 13, TBD)

Odds of finishing eighth after seeding games, per SportsLine’s Stephen Oh: 1.73 percent

Odds of finishing ninth after seeding games, per SportsLine’s Stephen Oh: 5.58 percent

One highlight: DeRozan’s dagger demoralizes gloomy Grizzlies: 

Bubble take: These are not the Spurs you know — they’re weirder and wilder in just about every way. In this alley-oop from Derrick White to Lonnie Walker, you can see the future:

For a team this small, the spacing isn’t as pristine as you’d hope. But while the Spurs are shooting 3s less frequently than anybody else in Orlando, they’re making 41.8 percent of them, good for fifth in the league. Much of that is due to White, an inconsistent and sometimes reluctant shooter who has been letting it fly. White has shot 45.5 percent on 8.3 attempts a game, and he has also taken a zillion charges.

Without LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio has finally let White and Dejounte Murray play together. Murray has been uneven offensively, but was fantastic against Memphis and looks closer to his pre-injury form than he did a few months ago. DeRozan, the nominal power forward in the first five, gets the buckets they need in fourth quarters, and this Eurostep against Joel Embiid is one of the smoothest moves anyone has made in the bubble: 

San Antonio doesn’t have friendly playoff odds, and Shake Milton’s game-winner might come back to haunt them when the seeding games are over. Regardless, the Spurs have had an opportunity to evaluate their young players, and there have been encouraging signs from pretty much all of them, including the dogged Keldon Johnson and Quinndary Weatherspoon

12. Sacramento: 29-39, 1-3 in Orlando, 2 games behind POR, 2.5 behind MEM 

So far: Lost to Spurs (129-120), lost to Magic (132-116), lost to Mavericks (114-110, OT), beat Pelicans (140-125)

One-sentence summary: This has been rough, especially on the defensive side, but De’Aaron Fox is always worth watching and the Kings aren’t dead yet. 

Upcoming opponents: Nets (Friday, Aug. 7, 5 p.m.), Rockets (Sunday, Aug. 9, 8 p.m.), Pelicans (Tuesday, Aug. 11, 9 p.m.), Lakers (Thursday, Aug. 13, TBD)

Odds of finishing eighth after seeding games, per SportsLine’s Stephen Oh: 0.63 percent

Odds of finishing ninth after seeding games, per SportsLine’s Stephen Oh: 4.56 percent

One highlight: Fox catches Murray with a cross, and then he’s a blur:

Bubble take: The Kings must wish they had more time. Nothing has been consistent for them, unless you count their difficulty getting stops. Sacramento gave up 43 first-quarter points to San Antonio in its first game, and followed that up by giving up 44 first-quarter points two days later. Only the Grizzlies have fouled more frequently. 

Fox was sensational in the Kings’ lone win, and they wasted his career-high 39 points against the Spurs. The Magic shut him down, though, and he wasn’t blameless in their fourth-quarter collapse against Dallas. Bogdan Bogdanovic scored 35 points against New Orleans, going 6-for-9 from deep, but that followed a 1-for-15 effort in the Mavs game. Coach Luke Walton replaced Nemanja Bjelica with Cory Joseph in the starting lineup against Dallas, then reinserted Bjelica against the Pelicans.

Sacramento had a better record than the Suns entering the bubble but is now inspiring the opposite of Phoenix’s fuzzy feelings. Marvin Bagley III’s season ended with a foot injury in practice, and Buddy Hield‘s play has been unequivocally disappointing. There is no sense that the roster is currently more than the sum of its parts, nor that the pieces fit particularly well going forward. 

13. New Orleans: 29-39, 1-3 in Orlando, 2 games behind POR, 2.5 behind MEM

So far: Lost to Jazz (106-104), lost to Clippers (126-103), beat Grizzlies (109-99), lost to Kings (140-125)

One-sentence summary: Schedule, schmedule — the Pelicans couldn’t quite hold on against Utah, got an understandably up-and-down week out of Zion and had an embarrassing defensive display in a must-win game against Sacramento. 

Upcoming opponents: Wizards (Friday, Aug. 7, 8 p.m.), Spurs (Sunday, Aug. 9, 3 p.m.), Kings (Tuesday, Aug. 11, 9 p.m.), Magic (Thursday, Aug. 13, TBD)

Odds of finishing eighth, per SportsLine’s Stephen Oh: 1.72 percent

Odds of finishing ninth, per SportsLine’s Stephen Oh: 9.41 percent

One highlight: This is always fun:

Bubble take: The Pelicans’ defense hadn’t been that bad before Thursday’s disaster, but their offense has been out of sorts for almost the entire time. Williamson’s minutes limit has made things awkward, and he has not helped matters defensively. 

The bright side: When Williamson has his burst, no one can stop him. New Orleans still has four games to play, and it has the talent to win out. 

Now more than ever, though, Williamson must root against his AAU teammate Morant. If Memphis wins one of its four remaining games and Portland wins just one of the four it has left, the Pelicans must go undefeated from here on out to make the play-in, per NBA.com’s John Schuhmann.  

Figuring out the rotation has never been easy for Alvin Gentry’s coaching staff, and now it’s a tougher task with higher stakes. Jaxson Hayes played big minutes initially, but is now an afterthought. Nicolo Melli’s shooting stroke has strangely disappeared, and Lonzo Ball has been cold, too. Josh Hart probably deserves more run, and the offense always looks better when J.J. Redick is on the court. To my eyes, Derrick Favors hasn’t been as sharp as he was a few months ago.  

If the Pelicans do not beat the odds and sneak into the playoffs, there will be people who second-guess them for subbing Williamson out in crunch time against Utah. Don’t be one of them. He is 20 years old, and the long-term future of the best prospect in recent memory is far more important than a few games against the Lakers.


*All times ET.



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