With a little over six weeks remaining until the NBA regular season is a wrap, one of the main storylines for the Phoenix Suns now becomes a battle in the Western Conference standings.
Securing homecourt will certainly be a priority, but the new wrinkle this year is the seventh- and eighth-seeded teams having to win a play-in to advance, while the No. 9 and 10 seeds have a chance to get past them and take their playoff spot. Avoiding that play-in is what’s on everyone’s mind and something the Suns’ Chris Paul has mentioned a few times this season as a broad goal of just being top-six.
To give a better idea of how Phoenix is shaping up against the competition, we’ll check in here every Tuesday up until the start of the postseason to analyze how each team 1-10 outside of the Suns has been trending.
All statistics via NBA.com/stats
1. Utah Jazz: 35-11
After winning nine in a row in February to improve to 24-5, it looked like Utah could be coming down to Earth with a run of 5-6 in its next 11 games.
Nope. The Jazz have won six straight since and have Memphis, Chicago, Orlando and Dallas up next. They could very well be on a 10-game winning streak heading into an April 7 showdown against … the Suns.
While Donovan Mitchell is on fire right now at 29.2 points per game in Utah’s 10 games since the break, keep an eye on Bojan Bogdanovic and Jordan Clarkson. Both guys are in shooting slumps over that stretch, with Bogdanovic at 31.9% and Clarkson shooting 33.1%.
2. Phoenix Suns: 32-14 (3.0 GB)
3. Los Angeles Clippers: 32-17 (4.5 GB)
You really can’t take a break in this race out West. Like the Jazz, just when it appeared the Clippers were in a funk, they rattled off six straight wins entering Tuesday, including the most recent victories over the 76ers and Bucks.
They have the NBA’s best offensive rating out of the All-Star break at a blistering 119.8, and the scariest development is that it’s not via a torrid stretch from Kawhi Leonard or Paul George.
Los Angeles has found a groove through Terance Mann (17.1 net rating in the Clippers’ last 10), Reggie Jackson (16.6), Marcus Morris (16.0) and Luke Kennard (14.6). All four of those role players have a higher net rating over that spurt than Leonard or George, who are top-10 on the season in net rating.
Kennard, in particular, is a big-time development. He’s still in and out of the rotation, but posted a season-high 21 points in Monday’s win over the Bucks. They need much more from him after signing the combo guard to a four-year, $64 million extension.
4. Los Angeles Lakers: 30-17 (5.5 GB)
The hope for the Lakers is to remain above the play-in game before Anthony Davis (calf) and LeBron James (ankle) return. It’s a relentless conference.
Davis hasn’t played since Feb. 14 and Los Angeles is 9-11 since. Lakers head coach Frank Vogel described Davis as “a ways away” on Friday. As for James, his high ankle sprain sustained on March 20 will reportedly have him on an expected timeline of 4-6 weeks, per The Athletic’s Shams Charania.
The Lakers have got to win every game they can without those two, meaning they’ve got to take advantage of any bad teams on the schedule. After losing four straight, including to the Suns, they beat the Cavaliers and Magic. To be fair, those were at scorelines of 100-86 and 96-93, respectively. A team led by Montrezl Harrell and Dennis Schroder can only do so much. The addition of Andre Drummond will help, but he’s certainly not a difference-maker.
Los Angeles’ next five games are against the Bucks, Kings, Clippers, Raptors and Heat before facing the Nets. They’ll be fortunate to steal more than one of those.
5. Denver Nuggets: 29-18 (6.5 GB)
Aaron Gordon made his debut for Denver on Sunday against the Hawks, starting alongside Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Michael Porter Jr. and Nikola Jokic.
That’s notable because with Gary Harris sent out to Orlando in return for Gordon, they are now a supersized team in that lineup construction with bigs Paul Millsap, JaMychal Green and the recently acquired JaVale McGee off the bench.
Point guards Monte Morris and Facundo Campazzo round out the guard depth chart, with P.J. Dozier as the only wing to get consistent reserve minutes. Morris hasn’t played since March 12 due to a quad injury.
Watch out for them with the buyout market and also any more potential injuries to perimeter players.
6. Portland Trail Blazers: 28-18 (7.0 GB)
This is a pretty remarkable story.
Portland is 10 games over .500 with a negative point differential. That’s because they have a league-leading 21 wins in games with clutch minutes. And that’s because Damian Lillard in the clutch this year is 38-of-68 (55.9%) from the field, 16-of-36 (44.4%) behind the three-point line and a perfect 43-of-43 at the foul line with 18 assists and seven turnovers.
Lillard kept the Blazers out of play-in range while Jusuf Nurkic and C.J. McCollum healed up, and now both are back. While Nurkic is only two games post-return, McCollum is at eight and has rounded back into form. He’s averaging 26.7 points and 6.7 assists per game in his last three, all wins for Portland.
7. Dallas Mavericks: 24-21 (10.5 GB)
These next two teams out of Texas are movers to watch.
The Mavericks have slowly but surely climbed out of the 9-14 hole they found themselves in earlier this season. They’re now 10th in offensive rating (113.9) and 23rd in defensive rating (112.5) on the season. And post-break in 11 games, Dallas has a 118.9 offensive rating while the defensive rating has held at 111.9.
Remember, this was the team that led the league in offensive rating last year while being 18th in defensive rating. The offense trending more in the elite direction again is big and could get them out of the play-in. If the Lakers completely fall off without Davis and James, Dallas is the logical pick at this moment to take that spot.
8. San Antonio Spurs: 23-21 (11.0 GB)
The Spurs have kind of just been here somehow, staying steady as a top-six seed while the likes of Portland and Dallas figured some things out and got healthy. Well, those two teams have, and San Antonio picked the wrong time to drop five of its last six games.
A defense that still ranks 10th in defensive rating has allowed 120 points to Milwaukee (fine), 134 against the Clippers (less fine) and 132 versus Sacramento (uh oh) over that stretch.
It’s a home back-to-back for the Spurs next taking on the Kings again Wednesday before an explosive Hawks team that has stabilized. We’ll see next week how they fared…
9. Memphis Grizzlies: 22-22 (12.0 GB)
During last year’s regular season pre-pandemic, we were watching that eighth and final playoff position out West that someone had to seize an opportunity on eventually. The Grizzlies managed to be the only team to go on some sort of a run and then remain solid to hold that cushion for the bubble.
That’s more of the same with them this year. Memphis lost three straight earlier this month before rattling off three in a row a week later. Since a Feb. 2 loss to the Indiana Pacers that dropped the Grizzlies to 9-7, they have failed to go above two games .500 or below two games under .500.
That consistency is all well and good, but they’re destined for the play-in unless a surge of momentum comes in the second half.
10. Golden State Warriors: 23-24 (13.5 GB)
Speaking of a surge, the Warriors were steadily above .500 after Draymond Green returned until Stephen Curry missed five games due to a tailbone injury.
Golden State lost four of those five games before Curry came back on Monday night, scoring 32 points in a win over the Bulls. He admitted after the game that he’s still in pain.
Curry on the year is posting 29.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game on 48/41/93 shooting splits. If you doubted him this past offseason, you were very, very wrong.
While the Warriors are a bit volatile outside of the chef, they’ve still got him, and that makes them a favorite to remain in this range and not tumble.
Next two up
The Kings (22-25, 13.5 GB) have won five straight and are right on the heels of Golden State after it looked like the 10 teams were creating a bit of separation. Sacramento’s defense at a league-worst 117.7 defensive rating feels like too much of a crutch to squeak in.
Below them, the Pelicans (21-25, 14.0 GB) aren’t good enough to be a threat, but Zion Williamson is making “The Leap” as New Orleans has started to give him the keys. Point Zion looks very difficult to stop and he’s putting up almost 30 a game in March. When it comes to stars making a push in this second half of the season, maybe Williamson can be truly great enough to get them back in the mix for a play-in spot.