The Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies, and Phoenix Suns have one thing in common: they have all played well enough during the 2013-14 campaign to have earned the right to play in the postseason.
The problem is that there simply are not enough Western Conference playoff seeds to go around; 10+ games over .500 or not, one of these clubs will be watching from home when the race for the NBA title begins. Tough titty, that’s how it works.
Just seven games are left to play and all three squads are essentially in the same position, with the Mavericks holding a slight half-game edge having played one additional game. They pulled off a huge upset at LA Thursday night behind Dirk Nowitzki’s 26 points and 11 rebounds, his third double-double in the last five games. Dallas was the first team to beat the Clippers at the Staples Center since February 16th, a good sign for Mark Cuban’s boys as we approach the elimination rounds.
If you’re looking for a basketball storyline to follow over the next two weeks, this is it. The race is tighter than European men’s underwear and NBA schedule makers have hooked fans up with head-to-head matchups between all three teams to finish up the season. Talk about a pre-playoff primer.
So who’s got the best chance of not ending up on the outside looking in?
A Hot Nowitzki and a Line-Up of Turds
It’s the NBA and every team in the league starts five of the greatest basketball players in the world every night it hits the hard court, but Dallas has got to be licking their lips when it comes to strength of schedule from here on out.
Not only are the Mavs already a half game up, but next up on their plate are three straight contests against the worst teams in the Western Conference. All three games are on the road, but Dallas will be in great position if they can dispense of the Lakers, Kings, and Jazz before battling the Spurs and Suns at home and closing out the year at the Grizzlies.
Nowitzki has been on a tear of late, and as I mentioned in a previous article, I believe that his championship experience, veteran leadership, and ability to take over a game on his own make the Mavericks the most dangerous of the lower seed teams (assuming they get in) come playoff time.
Leadership from the Forward Position
Now in his 12th NBA season and playing for his fifth team, Zach Randolph has quietly been putting up 17 points and 10 boards a night for over a decade. He may not be the type of superstar that will have fans chanting “MVP, MVP”, but he’s the kind of guy you can count on to contribute night in and night out.
Along with guard Mike Conley (17.1 PPG) and center Marc Gasol (14.1 PPG), the Grizzlies have a solid core of quality players that can compete with the top rosters in the league.
Speaking of top rosters in the league, after taking on Denver, they’ve got back-to-back games against the #1 seed teams in both the East and West. Presuming at best a (1-1) outcome from those two contests, they’re damn near in a must-win situation against the Nuggets tonight at home.
That being said, after running the Spurs/Heat gauntlet they’ve got easy wins against the Lakers and Sixers, and victories against both Phoenix and Dallas in games 81 and 82 could in themselves ensure that the Grizzlies wind up no worse than in the 8th seed.
Two Straight Losses and Now the Toughest Road
After winning seven of eight to propel themselves right into the hunt, the Suns have now dropped back-to-back games versus the two teams from Los Angeles (L @Lakers 99-115, L vs. Clippers 108-112). They’re currently tied with Memphis at (44-31), but the Grizzlies hold the tiebreaker and the Suns play five of their last seven games on the road.
Phoenix will need to reverse their fortunes quickly to avoid elimination. But it won’t be easy. Tonight they’ll visit the fifth seed Trailblazers at Moda Center, where Portland is (27-9). Not only are the Blazers tough to beat at home, they’ve won four straight.
To add insult to injury, next up on the slate are Kevin Durant and the Thunder. Durant has now scored 25+ points in an incredible 39 straight games. OKC is (8-2) over the previous ten games, including the last three in a row. The Spurs have been getting all the press with their 19-game win streak, but the Thunder are ready to prove that they belong back in the Finals.
After a quick respite @New Orleans (still not an easy win as the Pelicans have a winning record at home), the season finishes out @San Antonio, @Dallas, vs.Memphis, and @Sacramento.
The silver lining in the Suns’ bumpy ride to the postseason is that if they’re able to pull it off they’ll be on such a ridiculous wave of momentum that a first-round upset of the Spurs or Thunder might not sound completely asinine. A little asinine, but not completely.
I really suck at this … fortunately, so does everyone else.
For my sake, as well as yours, don’t wager any more than say, a half-rack of mediocre-quality beer based on any of my soothsaying.
Seventh Seed: Dallas wins 5 of 6, falling to the Spurs but taking both head-to-head contests versus the Suns and Grizzlies. Depending on what Golden State does, it’s not impossible that they move up a slot here, but in all likelihood the goaltending no-call the other night all but settled the Warriors into their position.
Eighth Seed: While I haven’t run all the permutations to accurately predict future tiebreaker scenarios should the Suns beat the Grizzlies, I don’t see Phoenix doing any better than (4-3) on this difficult last stretch. This means that as long as Memphis win more than they lose and maintain the tie breaker they ought to be safe. But can either of these teams really knock out the Spurs in a full-series? Unlikely.
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