When the NBA’s restart got underway last Thursday, the Grizzlies were in the driver’s seat for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, with at least a 3.5-game cushion on each of their five potential challengers. However, a slow start from the Grizzlies – who have lost three consecutive games to teams chasing them – has created a fascinating, wide-open race for that final playoff spot in the West.
After an 0-3 start, Memphis’ lead for that No. 8 spot is down to 1.5 games, and all five of their challengers are now within 3.5 games. To make matters worse, the Grizzlies will be without key big man Jaren Jackson Jr. for the rest of the season due to a meniscus tear, and the team’s schedule isn’t getting any easier. Contests against Utah, Oklahoma City, Toronto, Boston, and Milwaukee are on tap for the Grizzlies, who will have to hope that some of those Eastern teams are locked into their seeds by the last week of the season and decide to rest some starters.
The Trail Blazers, who currently hold the No. 9 spot, have looked like the biggest threat to Memphis so far in Orlando. With Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins healthy again, Portland is nearly at full strength and has recorded impressive wins over the Grizzlies and Rockets, sandwiching a tough loss to Boston. The Blazers are only a year removed from appearing in the Western Conference Finals. After struggling for much of the season, they’ve recently played more like the 2018/19 squad than the team that went 29-37 before the hiatus.
The Spurs and Suns have also looked rejuvenated since the season resumed. They own a combined 5-1 record so far, with the only blemish coming on Monday, when San Antonio lost a 132-130 heart-breaker to Philadelphia. The Spurs were four games out of the playoffs when the restart began, and the Suns were six games back, but they’re now within just two games and three games, respectively.
The Pelicans got off to a slow start last week, but their schedule is so forgiving that they’re still in a pretty good position to push for the No. 8 or 9 seed. After beating the Grizzlies on Monday, the Pelicans will play their final five seeding games against teams with losing records — Washington, San Antonio, Orlando, and Sacramento (twice). With Zion Williamson rounding into form, New Orleans has the most favorable schedule of any Western playoff contender.
Of course, those two games against the Kings loom large. Sacramento has been one of the summer’s most disappointing teams so far, having lost winnable games to San Antonio, Orlando, and Dallas. But the Kings are still just 3.5 games back of the Grizzlies and aren’t dead yet — those two games against the Pelicans will be massive, and Friday’s matchup against Brooklyn is certainly favorable.
No matter what happens over the next week-and-a-half, it looks like a near certainty at this point that we’ll get a play-in tournament for the No. 8 seed. The No. 8 team can only avoid a play-in tournament by finishing more than four games ahead of the No. 9 team, and right now even the 13th-seeded Kings are withing four games of Memphis.
Positioning will be crucial though. Only two teams can participate in that play-in tournament, so finishing 10th means little. Conversely, finishing in eighth place is massive, since it means only having to win once in the play-in tournament, rather than twice. At this point, there’s no guarantee the Grizzlies hang onto the No. 8 spot entering a play-in tournament — there’s even a chance they could slip to 10th or lower.
We want to know where you stand on the Western Conference playoff race. Has your opinion changed at all through the first six days of summer games? Which two teams do you think we’ll see in a play-in tournament? Which club do you expect to ultimately claim the No. 8 seed and face the Lakers in the first round of the postseason?
Head to the comment section below to weigh in with your thoughts!