The Western Conference Playoff Derby

Talk to anyone associated with one of the five teams fighting for the last four seeds in the ridiculous Western Conference, and you’re likely to hear some version of this: “I don’t even care who we play at this point. I just want to get in.”

The Blazers’ stagnation has broken the West into two distinct groups — the top four seeds, and the bottom five. After 60 games, the Blazers were one game up on the Clippers and tied with the Rockets, raising the possibility that Portland — viewed as something of a weak sister because of its unreliable defense — might finish as high as no. 3. That in turn would give one bottom-four seed hope of drawing a vulnerable first-round opponent.

Kiss that dream good-bye. Portland is closer to Dallas at no. 9 than Houston at no. 4, and both the Rockets and Clippers have jumped a level over the last month. If you’re a bottom-four seed, you’re opening the postseason on the road against a juggernaut. Put folks on truth serum, and they’d express a slight preference for one team over another, but the order in which the nos. 5-8 seeds shake out almost doesn’t matter in the first round.

But getting in matters, and this five-team derby is the most exciting story line of the stretch run. It only got more exciting last night, with Phoenix continuing its Eastern Conference rampage and Memphis slogging one out in Utah. No one is yielding. In chronological order, here are the five most important games left in the season:

March 28: Memphis @ Golden State

There are eight games left between our five protagonists, and five carry head-to-head tiebreaker implications. All games these five play hold some tiebreaker importance, especially games against fellow Western Conference teams. If two nondivision winners finish with the same records and split their head-to-head series, the league breaks the tie by going to records within their own divisions and conference.

The Grizz lead the season series over Golden State, 2-1, and if they snag this road win, they’d hold tiebreakers over every team in this group save the Mavericks. Memphis could use the edge; seven of its last 11 games are on the road, including two back-to-backs — a monster game in Phoenix (more later!), and the dreaded back-to-back visit to Denver. On the flip side, the Grizz have just one more game after a day off and against an opponent on the second end of a back-to-back (a rest advantage game) — and that’s against Miami.

Bright side: The opposing slate isn’t so daunting in terms of win percentage, and it includes an automatic win against Philly.

The Dubs don’t yet have a single tiebreak in hand, but they have the easiest remaining schedule and a slight edge over the field in conference record. They have three back-to-backs, most among this group, but one comes against the defenseless Lakers, and another is a home game against Minnesota in Game 81 for both teams.

That brings up another wild card that always comes into play late: when games that look tough on paper become easier in real life as normally strong teams pack it in for the season. Three of Golden State’s last five games come against Denver and Minnesota. The Wolves are toast and clearly demoralized, and Denver is dealing with fresh injuries to Wilson Chandler and J.J. Hickson. The Nugs have been playing spirited ball since Ty Lawson’s return, but they’re thin, and by the second week of April, they may be playing with one foot on the beach.

Bottom line: Golden State and Memphis are the two strongest teams in the bottom-five field. Memphis is 25-9 since Marc Gasol’s return, with the league’s sixth-best point differential in that span. Only Chicago has allowed fewer points per possession since Big Spain came back, and the Grizzlies’ offense has gradually found its footing. The team’s wing depth has allowed Dave Joerger to split up the bricktastic Tony Allen–Tayshaun Prince pairing, and to limit Prince’s minutes against matchups that don’t require a long wing defender.

Allen looks like he’s playing at warp speed after missing a huge chunk of the season. (You know who else just looks faster and springier than everyone else right now? Kawhi Leonard. Maybe everyone should just take a 20-game midseason break). He has meshed well with Mike Miller as a bench tandem, and Nick Calathes has kept the team afloat when Mike Conley rests.

Golden State hasn’t played up to its potential, with an offense that has been stuck around league average almost all season. The problems are the same — too many stagnant possessions, a flailing Harrison Barnes, some puzzling rotation choices, and small injuries that always seem to hit right as the team finds its rhythm. But this is a well-built roster with a rollicking home court. Odds are the Warriors will lose in the first round, but it wouldn’t blow me away if they made the Finals. The West is that nutty.

April 1: Golden State @ Dallas

Ladies and gentlemen: Meet the league’s best offense since the All-Star break, and the third-best for the season overall. Dirk Nowitzki’s body no longer allows him to unveil the full breadth of his offensive game every night — the quick cuts to the foul line on pick-and-rolls, off-the-dribble moves in the post, pump-and-drives, and all the other movement-based stuff that makes his peak game so unpredictable.

But that stuff is there some nights, and even when it’s not, Nowitzki remains an unmatched gravitational force among big men. Devin Harris isn’t shooting well, but the offense has taken off whenever he has been on the floor darting around. Vince Carter has found his shooting stroke, Brandan Wright finishes like a beast in all his goofy long-armed ways, and Jose Calderon (and his permanent one-week-stubble beard) has taken beautifully to a hybrid guard role orbiting Nowitzki and Monta Ellis.

The Mavs would be tied with Portland had they eked out two overtime home games in the last week against Brooklyn and Minnesota. But they’re tied with Phoenix, losing out in the tiebreaker. And bless ’em, they can’t really guard anyone; they’re 22nd in points allowed per possession, and have hovered around that level all season. The Mavs are rich in veteran smarts, and they execute their pack-the-paint scheme on a string — and without over-helping, Thunder-style, in the middle. They just don’t have much raw defensive ability at this point; even Shawn Marion has lost half a step. Ellis remains Ellis on defense, even if the Mavs have nudged his offense in a healthy direction.

The one exception: Dallas plays like a borderline top-10 defense when Samuel Dalembert is on the floor to provide rim protection, and Dalembert’s alarm clock has apparently been working lately. He has looked downright frisky. If the Mavs can get 25 minutes of quality Dalembert every night, they will be a problem in the first round — provided they get there. Using Harris in Calderon’s place with the rest of the starters would seem to offer at least a situational defensive upgrade, but that group has barely played together, perhaps because of the drop-off in shooting/spacing.

Dallas has a chance to sweep all four relevant tiebreakers if it takes this game and evens it season series against Golden State at 2-2.

The schedule is fairly kind. The Mavs’ only remaining back-to-back is a Clippers-Lakers Staples Center job, meaning it comes without the usual travel rigors. The Mavs have a whopping four rest advantage games, by far the most among this group.

One of those is against Sacramento, and the Kings have four remaining games against members of this group. Utah has three, and the Lakers have six. The dregs of the West shall be heard.

April 4: Phoenix @ Portland

The Suns have stayed in the no. 8 spot by winning seven of eight, mostly taking care of business on the road against inferior teams. They’re hanging tough with the 11th-best point differential in the league, and they’ve re-fortified their defense behind the combination of Eric Bledsoe’s return and a soft-ish recent schedule.

The team has continued to struggle offensively when Bledsoe plays without Goran Dragic, per NBA.com, and Channing Frye, a crucial floor-spacer, has looked gassed for most of the last two months — understandable after a year off. But it keeps finding ways, and Bledsoe is on a nice four-game scoring roll that culminated with a game-sealing long bomb Wednesday night in D.C. The best season-long story in the league will not die.

The schedule gets much harder after winnable games against New York and the Lakers, and Phoenix does not yet own a single tiebreaker. It can change that with a win in Portland, which would give it the season series, 3-1.

The Blazers have already lost tiebreakers to Memphis and Dallas, they trail both Golden State and Phoenix 2-1 in head-to-head games, and they have the worst conference record among all these teams by a very slim margin. In other words: They could really use this game, and other games like it.

Portland has pooped the bed during its road trip through the Southeast Division, though it might have pulled off a crazy comeback in Miami had Chris Bosh not continued his personal last-second assault on the Blazers. Their defense finally buckled without two of their three reliable big men, and the small-ball 3-point attack they’ve used without LaMarcus Aldridge went cold. But Aldridge should be back Thursday, and Portland has both a head start on the field and a relatively easy schedule down the stretch. Portland has just one back-to-back left, and three rest advantage games.

That schedule will get even easier if the Clippers are locked into their seed going into the season finale against Portland and decide to rest key players.

Keep an eye on the Spurs in this regard as well. They’re three games up in the loss column on Oklahoma City, and Games 79 and 80 come against Dallas and Phoenix. If they’ve clinched the top overall seed by then, the Mavs and Suns may catch the San Antonio “B” team. Then again, the Spurs’ “B” team tends to beat opposing “A” squads, or at least play them to the hilt. Long live Pop.

April 12: Phoenix @ Dallas

A potential monster game on my sister’s wedding night. It’s totally appropriate to check League Pass broadband on your mobile device during your little sister’s wedding reception, right? Just cross your fingers that I don’t yell “I LOVE YOU, GORAN DRAGIC!!!!” during my father’s toast.

This is Game 3 of a season series locked at 1-1, so at the very least, it will determine a tiebreaker that may still be relevant.

April 13: Golden State @ Portland

These are two teams that never imagined two months ago they might have to scrounge for a low seed. This is Portland’s other chance to get just one damn tiebreaker. A Blazers win would knot the season series, 2-2, putting conference record in play as the decider. Golden State currently has the edge there, but a lot will change between now and April 13.

♦♦♦

That’s it — the five games involving some combination of these five teams that also carry direct head-to-head tiebreaker implications. They may end up being the five most important remaining games of the season, at least when it comes to this segment of the league’s hierarchy.

Other games will matter, including the fourth Miami-Indiana and Clippers-Houston games, and perhaps the final meeting between the Clippers and Thunder; the Clips lead the season series, 2-1, and are just three games behind Oklahoma City in the loss column for the no. 2 spot.

And if things are still hairy when we reach the last three days of the season, check out the Grizzlies’ final two games:

April 14 @ Phoenix

April 16 vs. Dallas

Holy hell, what a finish. The Grizzlies will be on the second half of a back-to-back when they face the Suns, who will be at home on a rest advantage. It’s just a shame one of these five teams must exit early, though it’s not unprecedented in the Western Conference, and the consolation prize is a very small chance to move up in the draft lottery.

For now, let’s just cross our fingers and hope we get meaningful games right down to the wire.

Filed Under: NBA

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA