ZUO Sports >Basketball Hub >Earning a Play-In spot in the Western Conference won't be easy

Earning a Play-In spot in the Western Conference won't be easy


Let’s goahead and put Denver and Sacramento into the Western Conferenceplayoffs. It’s hard to imagine Memphis and Phoenix falling out ofthe mix, even withJa Morant away from theGrizzliesandKevin Durant still not able to makehis home debut for the Sunsbecause of ankle trouble. Putthem on the bracket as well.

And fromthere, it’s anyone’s guess.

The West isan absolute mess, and the middle of the pack — the race for thelast two guaranteed playoff spots and the four berths into theplay-in tournament — is as muddled and murky as possible.

“Hope,” Utahcoach Will Hardy said, “is a good motivator.”

True. There’splenty of hope still out there, too.

The West has,more often than not in recent years, been the power-broker side ofthe NBA. Not this year. The shinier records are at the top of theEastern Conference, which is on pace to finish with three of thebest four records this season — something that hasn’t happenedsince 2008-09.

The West hasbecome a logjam this year, and the standings change almost nightly.A single win or loss can change everything: Utah was ninth in theWest entering Monday, and afour-point loss at Miami left theJazz tumbling three spots to 12th. The Los Angeles Lakers,meanwhile, went from 11th to ninth — from out of the play-in toback in — without even playing.

DefendingchampionGoldenState beat Phoenixand went from sixth to fifth. After theWarriors, it’s the Los Angeles Clippers in sixth, Minnesotaseventh, Dallas eighth, the Lakers ninth, New Orleans 10th,Oklahoma City 11th and the Jazz 12th.

Put anotherway, 2.5 games separated the fifth-place Warriors from the11th-place Thunder. Only 4.5 games separated the Warriors from the13th-place Portland Trail Blazers. It’s hard to envision ascenario, given how tight the standings are right now, where atleast some West races for seeding don’t go down to the finalday.

“No one’sreally out of it right now, at this point in the WesternConference,” Hardy said. “There’s a couple teams that have fallen,I guess, out of the race, but 5 through 13 are so tight that everyteam is competing each night with that hope of like, ‘Hey, if youstring a few together, you can really vault in the standings.’ We’dall be lying if we say we don’t check the standings. We definitelydo, but it can be a little distracting.”

This isexactly what the NBA wanted when it added the play-in tournament —intrigue all the way to the end of the season. Only the top sixteams in each conference are guaranteed playoff spots when theregular season ends on April 9; the next four from the East andWest go to a play-in tournament to decide the No. 7 and No. 8 seedson the respective brackets.

Only threeteams — Houston, San Antonio and Detroit — have been eliminated.Charlotte isn’t too far away from joining that trio. Everyone elsestill has a legitimate chance, at least at the play-in.

“You do haveto embrace the competition,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Whenyou’re dreaming about things in the middle of the summer, this iswhat you want. You want games with incredible pressure and context.You don’t want games to have no meaning, to play for lottery balls.You want to have this kind of context. And you want to see whatthis competition can bring out of you.”

Teams willfind out, whether they want to know or not.

There are nofewer than 24 matchups the rest of the way that will pit thoseteams vying for spots 5 through 8 on the West bracket against oneanother, meaning those nights could lead to a big swing in thestandings.

It also mightcome down to which teams get somebody back in time to help thecause.

The Lakersmay get LeBron James back at some point. The Warriors aren’t surewhen Andrew Wiggins — out for personal reasons — could return, orif he will. The Mavericks are dealing with Luka Doncic and KyrieIrving both having injuries. The Timberwolves hope Karl-AnthonyTowns is close to a return from a calf injury. The Pelicans haveremained in the race despite not having Zion Williamson, whichthey’re probably used to by now.

Buckle up.Denver might not get caught atop the West. The trio of Milwaukee,Boston and Philadelphia will finish 1-2-3 in the East in someorder. But everything else is pretty much up for grabs, especiallyin the super-cluttered West.

“It’s funnywhat a couple of wins can do right now,” Clippers coach Tyronn Luesaid.

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