As the regular season draws to a merciful close, the disparity between the NBA’s two conferences is greater than ever, particularly regarding their respective playoff races. Struggling sub-.500 teams like Charlotte, Atlanta and the New York Knicks “fight” to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, their efforts likely to be rewarded with a four-game sweep by either the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers.
Meanwhile out West, a real battle for relevancy has set the stage for late-season drama.
The top of the Conference includes San Antonio, Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Clippers; these three teams have been at or near the top of the West all season. Separated by only three games in the standings and with each roster fairly intact and injury-free, the top spots will definitely be divvied up between these title contenders.
The middle of the pack belongs to the Houston Rockets (in the midst of a three-game losing streak), Portland (only 4-6 in their last 10 games) and Golden State. While each of these teams has flashed great promise and looked virtually unbeatable at one point, their recent play has revealed glaring weaknesses that make them unlikely threats for either the top seed of the Conference or the NBA title.
But the bottom of the Western Conference standings is where the real intrigue exists. The Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns are separated by only 1.5 games in the standings. With 16 games or less remaining in the regular season, the fight for the last two playoff spots will be a bloody contest between these squads. Here’s a look at each team’s chances of advancing into the postseason:
Dallas Mavericks (current 7th seed, 40-27 with 15 games left)
The Mavericks have defied the odds and clawed their way into the playoff picture. Dismissed at the start of the season, they’ve established themselves as unlikely offensive powerhouses, averaging 104.3 points per game and sporting the fourth-best offensive rating in the NBA. Their weaknesses are defense (rated 23rd of 30 teams) and rebounding (27th). Yet, they’ve made the most of an older Dirk Nowitzki, revitalized the career of Monta Ellis and somehow turned Vince Carter (12 points/3.5 rebounds/2.7 assists per game) into a legitimate Sixth Man of the Year Candidate. Their schedule seems favorable, beginning with an 8-game homestand against Boston on Monday. But their upcoming opponents include the surging Brooklyn Nets, OKC (beaten badly by Dallas on Sunday), L.A. Clippers (twice), Spurs, and Warriors before the Scheduling Gods lined up Phoenix and Memphis as their last two games of the season. The Mavs will also face Sacramento (twice), Utah, the Lakers and Denver. However, the Nuggets have beaten Dallas in all three games this season so this isn’t exactly a lock either.
Memphis Grizzlies (current 8th seed, 39-27 with 16 games left)
The Grizzlies, unlike the Mavericks and Suns, are the same team they’ve been for years, albeit a less-successful version. Grit n’ Grind still defines Memphis, keeping scores low (allowing only 94.6 PPG, third-best in the NBA) and playing tenacious defense. But their remaining 16 games are a tough stretch, with nine away games that include stops in Miami, San Antonio, Denver, Portland, Golden State, Minnesota and Phoenix. Their home games aren’t any better, with Indiana, Denver, Minnesota and Miami all visiting Memphis before Dallas plays the Grizzlies in their last regular-season game of the season.
Phoenix Suns (currently 9th seed, 38-28 with 16 games left)
The Suns represent the very best of what can happen during an NBA season (think of them as the “anti-Knicks”). Last summer, Phoenix was a clear front-runner in the Tank-a-palooza sweepstakes, trading away good veterans for inexperienced players and a vision – perhaps somewhat hazy – for the future. Months later, that vision is clear and the future is now. Head Coach Jeff Hornacek has maintained all season long that winning was possible and a very-realistic goal; he’s definitely made good on that. But Hornacek has managed to make the most of players that were largely castoffs and turned them into a pleasantly-surprising playoff contender. Guards Goran Dragic and Gerald Green have been phenomenal, and the frontcourt rotation of Miles Plumlee, Channing Frye, P.J. Tucker and the Morris twins (Markieff and Marcus) have produced, hustled and given hope to Phoenix fans. But a tough schedule (10 away games) could derail the Suns’ hopes of making the playoffs. Games against Brooklyn, Washington, the Clippers, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Dallas and Memphis might eliminate Phoenix from contention but just the fact that they’re part of the playoff discussion at all should mark this season as a success.
Ultimately, the Mavericks play much better at home (21-10 at American Airlines Center versus 19-17 everywhere else) and 10 of their last 15 games are in Dallas. Despite some streaky play throughout the season, look for Dallas to win at least 9 of their remaining games and hold on to the 7th spot (if not challenge for the 6th spot) in the standings.
The Grizzlies have been in decline since a stellar December (sparked by the return of Marc Gasol and resulting in a 14-5 record). Injuries and a lack of offensive punch will cost them in the remaining stretch of their schedule. Games against San Antonio and Dallas (a combined 6-0 versus the Grizz), as well as the Pacers and Heat, will be the Grizzlies’ undoing. Memphis will be knocked out of the playoffs, ending their season on a two-game losing streak.
That means Phoenix, the feel-good surprise of the NBA season, will take their cues from Coach Hornacek and claw and scrap their way into postseason. Winning 10 or their last 16 games, the Suns will earn the 8th spot in the Western Conference. But, unfortunately, for this young team, the victory will be short-lived as they advance to face the Spurs, Clippers or Thunder. You may have made the playoffs, Dragon, but watch out for those brooms.