What’s At Stake For Lakers, Jazz, Suns, Clippers, Nuggets, Mavs, Blazers In NBA Regular Season’s Final Weeks
If you think there’s a lot at stake in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, hold on to your masks because the last two weeks of the regular season schedule in the Western Conference has massive implications.
Here’s a brief look at the West standings as we head to the final fortnight:
There are essentially three groups with what they have to play for over the next two weeks, which we’ll break down:
Jazz, Suns fight for 1st
Utah and Phoenix will be in a dogfight for not just the top seed in the West, but possibly for the NBA Finals as well. And that’s not a small thing for two teams that have reached unimaginable heights this season. FiveThirtyEight gives the Jazz a 27% chance of making the Finals and a 16% chance, tied with Brooklyn for the 3rd best odds, to win the title. Those numbers are just 12% and 5% for the Suns, which is incredible considering the franchise hasn’t reached the postseason since 2009-2010.
Phoenix holds the all-important tiebreak between the teams after an enormous 121-100 home win against Utah on Friday. The Jazz have five of their last eight games at home, including two against San Antonio and one against Houston before ending with Oklahoma City and Sacramento on the road. Things are significantly more difficult for the Suns, which play seven of their last nine on the road including Atlanta, the Lakers, Golden State and two against the Spurs to end the season.
Utah should be able to hold off Phoenix for the top seed, but both clubs need to be careful not to go into a tailspin and end up close to this next group.
Nuggets, Clippers Battle For Uncertain 3rd Seed
We know what Utah and Phoenix are fighting for. With Denver and the L.A. Clippers, with the Nuggets holding the tiebreaker, things are far less clear. Because of the uncertainty of which teams will be seeded 5th and 6th, we’re not even sure if it’s advantageous to get the 3rd seed.
What we’re sure of is that the Clippers need to get back to full strength with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and especially Serge Ibaka to be healthy and ready for the playoffs, though Ivica Zubac has started well at center in Ibaka’s absence. And we know that Jamal Murray’s torn ACL will prevent him from playing until next season, likely a crushing blow for a Nuggets team rolling with MVP favorite Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. along with trade deadline acquisition Aaron Gordon.
After starting the season 16-14, the Nuggets are 27-7 since. But a brutal seven of their last eight games are on the road, including games at the Lakers and Jazz this week, though Minnesota and Detroit are also on the docket. Only games against Brooklyn and New York are at Ball Arena. For the Clippers, they have three home games this week against Toronto, the Lakers and New York before a relatively soft road trip against Toronto, Charlotte, Houston and Oklahoma City. Advantage: Los Angeles. But what does that advantage really mean?
Can the Lakers avoid the play-in?
Here’s where things get really spicy. With LeBron James back in the lineup on Friday for the first time in nearly six weeks, can the L.A. Lakers do enough to avoid the 7th seed and the play-in tournament?
Dallas and Los Angeles are currently tied for the 5th seed, but Portland lurks only one game behind both of them. Circle the Lakers’ Friday matchup in PDX against the Blazers as a crucial one. Los Angeles plays six of its final nine games at Staples Center if you include a “road” game against the Clippers. Denver, Phoenix and New York are among the final home contests.
For Dallas, a soft remaining schedule includes five of the final nine at home and two games against Cleveland and one against Sacramento, Minnesota, New Orleans and Toronto. The Mavs have the best shot here at 5th. Portland has the toughest remaining schedule among the bunch, with five road games of the final nine and the four home tilts coming against the Lakers, Spurs, Rockets and Nuggets. Boston, Atlanta, Utah and Phoenix are all on the road.
When it comes to possible first round playoff matchups in the West, the possibilities are surely mouth-watering for neutral observers. We could easily see a battle of Los Angeles in the first round between the Clippers and Lakers, a series we were deprived of when the Clips blew a 3-1 series lead to Denver in the conference semis. We could get a Western Conference finals rematch between the Nuggets and Lakers, with Jokic and Anthony Davis going head-to-head again in a best-of-seven. We could get a Clippers-Mavs series that went seven games in the first round last season, or a Nuggets-Mavs duel between Jokic and Luka Doncic.
But the biggest question mark of all is whether the Lakers can finish ahead of either the Blazers or Mavericks and avoid the play-in series, a scenario none of us could’ve envisioned when the 2020-2021 season began.