While most playoff positions have been locked up for the NBA’s Orlando Bubble restart, there is one spot that is going to come down to a last-minute play-in round.
Near the bottom of the NBA’s Western Conference, there are six teams fighting for the right to one postseason spot and the opportunity to go up against the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. Among those teams are four former Kentucky players who are vying for that final spot: Devin Booker, De’Aaron Fox, Keldon Johson, and Wenyen Gabriel. The way this new format is setup means that two squads (the teams that finish 8th and 9th in the standings) will matchup for a short play-in round, where the 8-seed would need just one win to advance while the 9-seed would need two consecutive victories.
A play-in round is going to happen no matter what at this point, and with roughly two-to-four games left on each team’s schedule, we still have no idea which of the two teams will sneak in with the shot at making the actual playoffs. As we dive into the final stretch of seeding games, all six teams technically have a chance, but the opportunities are dwindling fast. Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know regarding the upcoming week of Bubble basketball, starting with the standings as of Sunday morning.
Phoenix and San Antonio are on the rise
The two hottest Bubble teams–at least in the Western Conference–are the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs. Their timing couldn’t have been more perfectly timed (or ill-timed, depending on how you view things) as they now have both have legitimate shots at forcing a play-in round.
Phoenix, powered by Devin Booker, has been the surprise Bubble team, bruising its way to an undefeated 5-0 record after an exhilarating win over the Miami Heat on Saturday. The five-game winning streak marks the first time the franchise has done so since 2014, over six years ago. Booker has been the best individual player in the Bubble so far not named TJ Warren, with the former Wildcat averaging over 29 points per outing on a 50 percent shooting clip to go along with 3.4 rebounds and 6.4 assists. The Suns haven’t been waltzing through these games either, they’ve had to take down the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers, and Indiana Pacers along with the Heat–four teams that will all make noise in the playoffs.
The Suns might have to win out if they still want a chance to force a play-in round. Considering they are a half-game back of the Blazers for the 9-seed and two full games back of Memphis for the 8-seed, going at least 2-1 in the final three is necessary. In reality, they probably need to win all three. Unfortunately, they have to go up against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers, and the Mavericks again to close out what has been an already improbable run. The Suns had less than a one percent shot at making the playoffs before the restart began, yet here they are, closer than they’ve been all season long. All they have to do is gain that half-game on Portland and they’ll have a chance to move into the postseason for the first time since 2010. Easier said than done.
As for San Antonio, they started off on a 2-0 run to open the Bubble but lost the following matchups against the Denver Nuggets and 76ers by a combined total of eight points. They did manage to take down the Jazz in game No. 5, moving them into a tie with the Suns at just a half-game back of the Blazers. The Spurs remaining schedule won’t do them any favors, though. While they should easily be able to knock down a depleted and unmotivated New Orleans Pelicans team in its next game, closing the seeding games against the Houston Rockets and then Utah again will be no easy task.
Keldon Johnson has been one of the sparkling lights for the Spurs to come out of the restart, exceeding all expectations that were placed upon him before arriving at the Bubble. The rookie has been a major factor in San Antonio’s climb to keep its 22-year postseason streak alive. The former ‘Cat is averaging 11.2 points and 5.2 rebounds while playing heavy minutes for the Spurs off the bench.
Portland and Memphis remain in the best position
From the beginning, these were the two teams in the best position to make the play-in round. Memphis: strictly due to where the team stood in the standings once the season was postponed with a 32-33 overall record. Portland because of its top-to-bottom talent. Five games into the restart and this remains the case, even if the Grizzlies have done everything in its power to throw it all away.
Memphis has dropped four of its first five Bubble games but did win its most recent outing against the Thunder in a 29-point blowout. The main issue for the Grizz is the injury to rising star Jaren Jackson Jr., who will miss the remainder of the season after tearing his meniscus in the team’s third outing. Even with rookies Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke playing well, they desperately needed Jackson to help stabilize both ends of the court. Right now, Memphis is holding on by a nail and the gap is getting closer every day. They still hold a 1.5 game lead over Portland, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone confident enough to think they’ll hold onto that spot. Memphis will close its season against the top three teams in the Eastern Conference: Milwaukee, Toronto, and Boston.
Despite the fact that the Trail Blazers and Damian Lillard choked away a must-win against the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday, they are still viewed as the favorite to make the playoffs and for good reason. Lillard has emphatically been one of the best players in the Bubble and is proving it in each game. The bonus for Portland has come during the four-month quarantine break, which allowed two starting-caliber centers in Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic to come back fully healthy. Among the six teams discussed in this post, the Blazers easily have the most talent. Lillard, Collins, Nurkic, CJ McCollum, Carmelo Anthony, and Gary Trent Jr. have ALL impressed down in Orlando. They are the team that can give the Lakers the most run for its money in the first round. Portland will finish the seeding games with matchups against the 76ers, Mavericks, and the Brooklyn Nets. If they can win two of those games, they’ll easily make the play-in round.
New Orleans and Sacramento are all but out
Now it’s time to get into the sad news, which features De’Aaron Fox and his Sacramento Kings falling off a cliff during the restart. Fox has actually been impressive down in Orlando, posting crazy per game averages of 26.2 points and 7.0 assists while shooting right at 50 percent from the floor. His teammates, however, have not. The Kings are 1-4 in the Bubble with bad losses to the Nets, Spurs, and Orlando Magic. Losing to the Mavericks in overtime was just the icing on the cake. Sacramento’s only win thus far has come against the only other team playing worse basketball than them in the West: the New Orleans Pelicans. Sacramento is two full games back of the 9-seed with games against the Rockets, Pelicans (again), and Lakers to close out the regular season. Woof…
Speaking of the Pellies, with Zion Williamson still on the mend and not playing in back-to-backs, the Pelicans season looks all but over. They’ve gone 2-3 in the Bubble and actually have the easiest remaining schedule of all six teams (Spurs, Kings, Magic) but sit a full game back of the 9-seed. I won’t count them out entirely, especially since a win over San Antonio later on Sunday could drastically change the standings, but the franchise hasn’t shown much desire to make the playoffs. Brandon Ingram has not been his usual self and Williamson can’t play a six-minute stretch without losing gas.
As much as I would like for the Suns (or even the Spurs) to push aside the Grizzlies in order to meet the Blazers in the first round, I can’t bring myself to commit to it. As of right now, I’m sticking with what the standings currently have, with Memphis and Portland forcing a play-in round for the right to earn the Western Conference’s eight-seed. Had Memphis lost its most recent outing to the Thunder, I might be thinking differently, but they still hold a 1.5 game lead over the eighth-seed. For any team to overtake them (Portland, San Antonio, or Phoenix), the Grizz would likely have to lose all three remaining games while the teams below them go, at worse, 2-1. It can easily happen, I’m just not set that it will.
I never thought I would care this much about NBA teams with sub-.500 records, but I’m just so glad to be watching basketball again. I’ll be actively rooting for a Portland-Phoenix play-in round though, and you should, too.