Heading into the All-Star break, it looked like the Memphis Grizzlies had a firm grasp on the eighth seed in the Western Conference. A week or so later, it looks like as many as six teams are making a run at the final spot in the West’s postseason bracket
Memphis has come out of the break banged up and on a three-game losing streak. Jaren Jackson Jr. is down for at least two weeks due to a sprained knee and Brandon Clarke joined him on the shelf with a right quad bruise. Justise Winslow, who was acquired at the trade deadline for starting forward Jae Crowder, has yet to make his Grizzlies debut as he continues to deal with a back injury that has plagued him all season.
All of the injuries have left Memphis shorthanded up front and relying on backups to play key minutes.
To add to it, the Grizzlies have the NBA’s toughest closing schedule. Memphis’ opponents over their last 25 games have a combined .554 winning percentage. The stretch includes games against both the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers (the leaders of each conference), two games against the Toronto Raptors and a game each against the Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets.
The young Grizzlies have been a surprise to this point in the season, but to hang on and make the playoffs might be an even bigger shock at this point.
Battling it out behind Memphis is a collection of teams who have been there before and a few who haven’t sniffed the postseason in years. There are five teams between 2.5 and 4.5 games back and all of them have 24 or 25 games left to play.
Despite a slew of injuries of their own, the Portland Trail Blazers have hung around and trail the Grizzlies by 2.5 games entering play on Tuesday night. Damian Lillard is out for a few weeks, and big men Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins still don’t have return dates, but Terry Stotts has kept the Blazers afloat.
C.J. McCollum is carrying the scoring load and Carmelo Anthony’s resurgence has seen him pick up a bigger offensive role over the last couple of weeks. Hassan Whiteside continues to play well as the only healthy center on the roster, and Trevor Ariza has added a defensive element since he was acquired in late-January.
Unlike the Grizzlies, the Trail Blazers benefit from their closing schedule. They’ve got the league’s fifth-easiest batch over their final 24 games. Portland has games against Golden State, Cleveland, Minnesota (twice) and Atlanta still coming. That’s a bunch of wins the Blazers should be able to bank.
Speaking of easy schedules, the New Orleans Pelicans have gotten back in the race behind the third-easiest schedule to close the season. Cleveland, two games apiece against Atlanta and Minnesota and one game against New York are on tap for the Pels.
In addition, no team has gotten more players back from injury than New Orleans has. Their entire roster is ready to go for this stretch run, including rookie sensation Zion Williamson. And if the Pelicans can snag the eight seed, they’d likely match up with the Lakers. Who wouldn’t like to see that in the first round?
Just behind the Pelicans are the San Antonio Spurs. Why should we keep monitoring the surprisingly underwhelming Spurs? Because they’ve made the postseason for a record 23 straight times.
The challenge for Gregg Popovich in extending that streak is getting production from someone other than LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan. It’s been a bit of a mixed-bag for San Antonio from night to night as to anyone showing up around two former All-Stars.
The Spurs will also benefit from an easy schedule to finish out the year as well, as they’ve got the sixth-easiest schedule. Much like their competitors for the last playoff spot in the West, San Antonio can feast on a couple of games against the Timberwolves, as well as two vs the Warriors. Unlike their peers, the Spurs have been mostly-healthy this season, so they really just need productive minutes from players who have been there, done that.
Two other teams have unexpectedly gotten themselves back in the playoff conversation: the Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns. The Kings recently said that they were making a playoff push. They’ve gone 6-4 over their last 10 games and also have an easy closing schedule. They’ve got the Warriors and Cavaliers two times apiece and a game against the Wolves.
Sacramento has worked around injuries all season, as they’ve rarely had their full rotation together at the same time. Luke Walton recently shuffled the lineup around by switching Buddy Hield to the sixth-man role and inserting Bogdan Bogdanovic in the starting group. That has brought some balance to both units. Bogdanovic gives the openers another player who can create offense off the bounce alongside De’Aaron Fox, while Hield is instant offense off the bench.
The Suns are no stranger to not having their full complement of players available. Monty Williams has mixed and matched around injuries and DeAndre Ayton’s 25-game suspension early in the season. Now that Phoenix is fully healthy, they’re playing some of their best ball of the year. Devin Booker has blossomed into an All-Star and Ayton’s improved defense is matching his terrific offense.
With solid veterans like Ricky Rubio and Aron Baynes, the Suns have players who know what it’s like to make a playoff push. The challenge for Phoenix, like Sacramento, is making up not only the 4.5 game deficit in the standings, but also climbing several other teams.
For a while it looked like the playoff picture in both conferences was locked in, minus seeding. With the precocious Grizzlies coming back to the pack and the teams behind them benefiting from schedules and better health, we might just have a real playoff race on our hands after all.