Last week, we discussed cementing some teams in certain ranges of the standings, and we’ve arrived.
There are 9-12 games left for these 10 teams in the regular season entering Tuesday, which means something like a four-game lead is a lot more significant than you think.
With that, we are dumping the “Next Two Up” section and grouping these teams into tiers, based on the strong likelihood they finish somewhere in that tier.
The Phoenix Suns are still in the top. Let’s go through ’em:
1. Utah Jazz: 44-17
2. Phoenix Suns: 43-18 (1.0 GB)
3. Los Angeles Clippers: 43-20 (2.o GB)
The Jazz could have taken a few big steps forward in locking up the one seed, but lost back-to-back games to Minnesota (oops!). They’ve still got a very light schedule remaining, though, with two back-to-backs and the top opposition being Phoenix and Denver. Everyone else is either bad or in the play-in mix.
The two seed remains rather interesting, and the difference in schedules favors the Clippers over the Suns. The difference in the quality of opposition is only slight, but the intricacies of the Suns’ run is where the separation lies.
Phoenix has the Clippers and Jazz this week, the second game of a back-to-back in Atlanta and a back-to-back baseball series in San Antonio to end the season. Remember, the Spurs could have something to play for in those games.
Obviously, the Suns’ games at home against these other two teams will have a big-time impact on how the top-3 shifts heading into next week. We’ll have a better idea of what it could look like after that.
4. Denver Nuggets: 40-21 (4.0 GB)
Denver, to its own credit, is sort of stuck here. The Nuggets have won six of their seven games since Jamal Murray’s injury, thanks to a necessary leap from Michael Porter Jr.
Porter over that stretch is averaging 25.7 points per game while shooting 59.1% and 54.4% from three-point range.
But the Nuggets are now without guard Will Barton, who injured his hamstring on Friday and is out for “the foreseeable future.” They’ve also been without guard Monte Morris for five straight games as the team remains cautious about a lingering hamstring injury.
The recently signed Austin Rivers has played 27 and 29 minutes in the two games after Barton’s injury and that’s all Mike Malone can do.
Feels like a Western Conference Finals rematch from last year with the Lakers in the first round, but we’ll see how things materialize.
5. Los Angeles Lakers: 36-25 (8.0 GB)
6. Dallas Mavericks: 33-27 (10.5 GB)
Quite the week of developments here.
The Mavericks swept the Lakers in a baseball series before Los Angeles beat the Magic and Dallas gave Sacramento its third win in a month (whoops!) without De’Aaron Fox (double whoops!).
The name to watch is Anthony Davis. The Lakers said on Monday that LeBron James is still out indefinitely without a timeline, so Davis rounding into form the next two weeks could determine if the Lakers slip. Davis combined to shoot 7-of-29 in his first two games back before looking OK on Monday, but still only amounting to 18 points in 31 minutes.
Davis starting to put up numbers more like himself could determine if there’s any movement here, because the Lakers rightfully don’t care about their seed while Dallas has the easiest schedule remaining of any of these 10 teams.
7. Portland Trail Blazers: 32-28 (11.5 GB)
8. Memphis Grizzlies: 31-29 (12.5 GB)
9. San Antonio Spurs: 31-29 (12.5 GB)
10. Golden State Warriors: 31-30 (13.0 GB)
The Blazers have an argument to be one tier above, but they’ve lost five in a row, nine of their last 11 and the schedule is absolutely brutal for the closing stretch.
If Dallas stalls out, all three other teams in this grouping are in-form enough to potentially leap ahead, but my pick is Memphis.
A fun Grizzlies stat: Outside of coming up short against the Indiana Pacers earlier this month, the last time the Grizzlies lost to a team at the play-in range or below was on March 19 versus Golden State.
Memphis has been taking care of business against inferior or equal competition, and its next eight games are against Portland, Orlando twice, New York, Minnesota, Detroit, Toronto and New Orleans. After that, it’s Dallas, a baseball series hosting Sacramento and Golden State to wrap the season. I don’t think a 10-2 run there is inconceivable.
Keep an eye on Memphis moving up, or the Spurs, who have won five of six.