Yes, it’s time to start looking at playoff tiebreakers. Or, at least acknowledging their existence. I know some of you might be apprehensive, rightfully so, but the Phoenix Suns are a good basketball team. We are in a safe place now! I promise!
With the Suns now 20-10 after Monday’s 132-100 destruction of the Portland Trail Blazers (18-12), now is a good time to dive in on a key part of the regular season to keep an eye on.
Thanks to the implementation of a play-in tournament this season, tiebreakers in the standings are now the most significant they’ve ever been. Top-six seeds in each conference will get an automatic playoff bid while the 7-10 seeds will battle it out in a play-in tournament to determine the last two spots. And beyond that, the seventh and eighth seeds will have to lose twice to not make it in, while the ninth and 10th seeds on the inverse will have to win twice to qualify.
Tiebreakers between two teams start with head-to-head record. If things get really weird and it’s a tiebreaker involving three or more teams, only a team winning its division can trump head-to-head record.
Simply put, games against teams perceived to be close in the standings by the end of the season matter a whole lot.
There are other stipulations after that, but because of the unique 72-game season this year, that likely won’t be necessary. The schedule was divvied up rather simply with three games against each team’s opponent in the same conference and two apiece for the opposing conference’s teams. This, of course, means that head-to-head can’t come to a tie unless something goes awry with postponements.
The Suns beat the New Orleans Pelicans (13-17) on Friday, ensuring a tiebreaker hold on them after winning two out of three. The victory over the Memphis Grizzlies (13-14) the next day was necessary to keep it alive, with a 1-1 split left to be decided in the second half of the schedule.
It’s important. Along with the general philosophy of beating these teams to finish higher than them in the standings, head coach Monty Williams didn’t deny on Friday that the Suns have been peeking at the shape of the West, admitting it’s “human nature” to look.
“Yeah. I mean, I could sit here and tell you no but I think all of us were looking about a month ago,” he said with a chuckle. “That’s just the way it is when you want it so badly for the team, the players, the city. Now, I think you look more intently. You don’t just look at the standings but you start looking at your opposing teams’ schedule. Those are just different ways you try to figure out how you can get an edge or improve in the standings.”
Center Deandre Ayton acknowledged Monday’s victory as being key.
“We knew Portland was a big game,” he said. “We knew we were fighting for a spot. You know how that is.”
It certainly was a big one to take advantage of a Blazers team without C.J. McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins.
Looking at the current Western Conference playoff picture, here is the Suns’ record versus those teams thus far, with the already-decided tiebreakers in bold:
1. Utah Jazz (25-6): 1-0
2. Los Angeles Lakers (22-10): 0-0
3. Los Angeles Clippers (22-10): 0-1
4. Phoenix Suns (20-10)
5. Portland Trail Blazers (18-12): 1-0
6. San Antonio Spurs (16-11): 0-0
7. Denver Nuggets (16-14): 1-2
8. Golden State Warriors (16-15): 1-0
9. Dallas Mavericks (14-15): 3-0
10. Memphis Grizzlies (13-14) 1-1
11. New Orleans Pelicans (13-17): 2-1
The Suns end the first half with games against the Lakers (March 2) and Warriors (March 4) before the All-Star break. It’s easy to say the Warriors game is the one to circle more in terms of evaluating how the standings could pan out, but given the way the Suns have played lately, who knows.
Williams was asked if he thinks the last nine quarters, in which the Suns have outscored their opposition by 92 points, is the highest gear he’s seen his team reach so far since he arrived last season.
He wasn’t sure.
“I haven’t really… I just don’t have time to kind of look at it that way. I hope so,” he said. “I hope we have a few more gears and levels to get to. That’s your hope as a coach is that your team continues to grow and develop as we continue to learn our system and learn each other. I’m hopeful. I just love when we defend the way we did.”
Shooting guard Devin Booker took a second to absorb the question before giving the statement his blessing.
“Umm…. I would think so,” he said. “It’s been some really good basketball played. Yeah.”