With just a few weeks left in the NBA regular season, it’s getting down to the nitty-gritty for the teams on the playoff bubble. One of those unfortunate teams happens to be the injured and underachieving Portland Trail Blazers. They are definitely not alone, however—there are several teams within theoretical striking distance of the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies for the final Western Conference playoff spot.
The top seven are virtually locked; all that’s to be decided for them is where they will be seeded. Minnesota and Golden State are toast, though the Warriors could play spoiler for a few teams now that Stephen Curry has convinced them to let him play in their final 20 games.
Everybody else in the West is in this Highly Scientific Table:
|Team||Wins||Losses||Win Percentage||Games Behind 8th|
|Portland Trail Blazers||28||35||.444||3.5|
|San Antonio Spurs||26||34||.433||4|
|New Orleans Pelicans||26||36||.419||5|
As you can see from the Highly Scientific Table, the Grizz still have a solid grip on the final playoff spot—their three-game winning streak has pulled them out of their post-All-Star funk that threatened to drag them back into the pack. Ja Morant hasn’t hit that rookie wall quite yet, but these last few weeks will be a huge test for the youngsters.
Making the playoffs as the eighth seed may seem inconsequential to most people, and in the macro sense, they’re right—I myself am on the record saying I’d rather Portland land in the lottery this season, despite the relative weakness of the 2020 class. In the micro sense—what making the playoffs means to each of these franchises—it’s actually pretty significant.
For the Blazers and Spurs, it would continue a remarkably consistent tradition of success; over the last 50 years, only the Los Angeles Lakers have made the playoffs as many times as Portland and San Antonio. (Though the Blazers have by far done the least with those playoff appearances; while the Lakers and Spurs have combined for 16 championships since the Blazers entered the Association, Portland has only the 1977 title to its name.)
For the Grizzlies, it would be affirmation that rebuilding doesn’t have to take a decade or longer, and the fans that grew attached to the Grit-n-Grind Grizz will continue supporting this small-market team in a rare NBA outpost in the Border South.
For the Suns and Pelicans, it would give their young studs a reward for their hard work, a nibble of the carrot before getting kicked back onto the wheel of improvement.
And for the Kings (or KANGZ, if you like memes and general incompetence), it would break a very ignominious streak of non-playoff seasons and silence Buddy Hield’s grumbling about being moved to the bench. Maybe.
Grizzlies Next Four Games: @ Dallas, Atlanta, Orlando, @ Portland
Memphis is sitting pretty right now, even after a five-game losing streak that included two losses to Sacramento (and ceded the season series to the KANGZ, three to one). The Dallas game will be tough, with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis starting to jell (finally), but the others are eminently winnable. Having their frontcourt youngsters, Brandon Clarke and Jaren Jackson Jr., back from injury will help immensely, and not just because it got those guys some much-needed rest from the grind of the NBA season.
The game in Portland on Thursday is HUGE for both teams.
Trail Blazers Next Four Games: @ Phoenix, Sacramento, Phoenix, Memphis
This is the time to make serious hay if you’re the Blazers: Damian Lillard is back, the next few games are against teams they’re fighting with for the playoffs, and things are already getting a little desperate.
Adding to that desperation is the fact that tiebreakers are on the line this coming week. Portland is 1-1 against the Suns and have already dropped one contest in their three-game season series against the Baby Bears. New Orleans swept their series, 4-0. If there was ever a time for Lillard to channel his Stephen Curry alter ego—which he’s had to do A LOT this season—this is it.
KANGZ Next Four Games: Philadelphia, @ Portland, Toronto, New Orleans
The good news for Sacramento: they’ve played two fewer games than most of the league, and their tiebreakers over the Grizz are secured.
The bad news: their other tiebreakers are still up in the air, and if they lose to the Blazers and Suns this week, they’ll lose those breakers.
The KANGZ are a dysfunctional, badly coached mess, but they’re in the same position as Portland and San Antonio. If the Baby Bears go on another losing streak, or hit the rookie wall, all it’ll take is a few wins to square up.
Spurs Next Four Games: @ Brooklyn, @ Cleveland, Dallas, Denver
San Antonio has lost most of their tiebreakers, have gone just 2-8 in their last 10 games, and are swiftly running out of time to make some magic happen. They’re not as far behind as the Pelicans, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone on this team capable of hossing a roster on his back and dragging them to the finish line.
The Spurs lack a Damian Lillard, a Zion Williamson, or hell, even a Devin Booker. They need a big-time scorer, and the best they got is DeMar DeRozan, a midrange anachronism whose best days appear to be behind him.
Pelicans Next Four Games: Miami, @ Minnesota, @ Sacramento, @ Utah
This is the power of the Zion Factor—despite being a full five games back of the eighth seed, and despite their widespread youth, the Pelicans are the chic choice to upend the Grizzlies should they falter.
Two weeks from now they have two games with Memphis that are must, MUST wins. The Grizzlies already beat them twice this season, and a single loss to them—or a prolonged losing streak—would signal the death knell for the Pelicans’ playoff push.
Suns Next Four Games: Portland, Milwaukee, @ Portland, @ Dallas
I mostly included the Suns here as a courtesy; they are all but toast. Having a late-season visit from the Bucks, a team that could go down as one of the best regular-season squads of all time, is especially painful. Phoenix needs every single game, and taking one off of Giannis Antetokounmpo or Doncic on the road is a skyscraper of a tall order.
At least Booker and Deandre Ayton have looked great this year. Booker, in particular, has been really coming along strong.