In the grand scheme of things, you could say fretting so much over who will sneak into the Western Conference playoffs as the eighth and final seed is misspent energy. The Spurs and Thunder have been on higher ground for most of the season, and a first-round pairing with either could spell certain doom for most teams.
But, of course, there are exceptions to this idea; most recently and notably, last year’s Memphis Grizzlies team, which took the seemingly Title Run-Ready Spurs behind the woodshed and left them battered, bruised and without a doubt towards the legitimacy of what had just happened. Memphis then went on to engage in a grueling seven-game fisticuff with Oklahoma City before finally running out of steam. The point is, it’s not often but the eighth seed does and always will matter, and depending on match-ups and momentum, one can never really guess with certainty towards an outcome until a series plays out for at least a game or two. Sometimes they become four-game romps, rarely do they evolve into a full-fledged upset, but other times they are straining, maybe more-so than initially expected, an increased workload for the favorite to endure before eventually advancing. These are the kind of series that can be referenced back to at later points in the postseason, should a team look like its searching for an energy reservoir in the deeper rounds.
The Rockets, Suns, and Jazz appear to be the three teams vying for one open spot this season. The Nuggets have leapfrogged Dallas for sixth place thanks in large part to a home-and-home sweep of Houston; the Mavericks, despite slipping to seventh, haven’t been playing poorly of late but instead have fallen in some toss-up overtime contests to the Lakers and Jazz — hardly the mark of a failure. Dallas still has some breathing room, and it would remain a stunner to see them dip out of the postseason picture altogether.
As of this fine Tuesday morning, the Suns are the team seemingly generated fresh daily like lottery balls in the eight spot thanks to a tiebreaker called “Win-Loss Percentage versus Playoff Teams, Own Conference.” According to NBA.com, this is the fourth of six tiebreakers; meaning we’re already getting pretty deep. This percentage the Suns are riding in on could be in real trouble, though, because Phoenix’s final five games are absolutely brutal:
Versus the Thunder; versus the Clippers; versus the Nuggets; at Utah; versus the Spurs.
If the Suns can navigate that while holding off Houston and Utah, they surely will have earned their playoff berth. Meanwhile the Rockets, after dropping that back-to-back with Denver and losers of four straight overall, have gone from favorite, of sorts, to take the final spot to outside looking in. Of the three, Houston seems the most nondescript; the kind of team that, if they rally and make the postseason, will have done so because of their solid steadiness and if they don’t, because they’re simply too average. The Rockets could probably make a playoff series interesting, but it’s likely they aren’t many overall NBA follower’s first choice, either.
Utah, despite stubbing its toe over the weekend in New Orleans, could be the most entertaining and potentially dangerous opponent for whomever claims the top seed if everything is clicking. This could just be in the wake of last night’s triple overtime win over the Mavericks, and they are rather thin behind the starting five, but the Jazz have muscle inside with Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap that could give a weaker rebounding team like the Thunder problems. They currently sit a half-game behind Houston and Phoenix with only four games left to play (instead of the five of the Rockets and Suns), so the Jazz will need a strong finish and some help, but count me as someone who wouldn’t mind seeing them sneak in, somehow.
All told, this next week-and-a-half has so much yet to be determined in regards to the bottom of the Western Conference that you might think the overall importance is becoming a bit skewed. Whether the eighth seed turns out to be mere shark chum or something more, something that lingers or even advances into the next round, will have to wait. For now, we can hope that whomever qualifies does so in an exciting, fire-breathing fashion, so that when the playoffs do start we’re forced to really consider, if only for a short time, “what if?”
Griffin Gotta contributes to The Hoop Doctors and is a co-managing editor of Straight Outta Vancouver. The story arcs and infinite weirdness of the NBA are addictions he deals with every day. Email him at griffingotta at gmail dot com.