Three teams for two spots. That’s basically what the playoff race in the Western Conference is down to, what with the Los Angeles Clippers clinching the Pacific Division and the Houston Rockets’ mini-slide making them more likely to drop to the No. 5 seed than move up to No. 3.
The Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies and those plucky Phoenix Suns are in a neck-and-neck battle for those two spots. “Neck” is the appropriate word because from the outside looking in, those three teams appear to be trying to play with both of their hands firmly encircling theirs.
The Mavericks had their shot Tuesday night when the Golden State Warriors visited American Airlines Center. Dallas was wrapping up a franchise-long eight-game homestand and needed to beat the Warriors just to finish it with a winning record after losing to Minnesota (in overtime), Brooklyn (in overtime) and the Clippers.
But the Mavs couldn’t do it, falling under the weight of a call the NBA admits it blew—Jermaine O’Neal’s block of a Monta Ellis shot late in overtime should have been ruled a goaltend—and a Stephen Curry dagger with 0.1 seconds left set up by the goaltend that wasn’t.
That left Memphis and Phoenix tied for the final two spots heading into Wednesday night’s action.
The Grizzlies went to Minnesota, which is still mathematically alive for a playoff berth but finished for all practical purposes. With Memphis having everything to lose and Minnesota really having nothing to gain, the Timberwolves smacked the Grizzlies around to the tune of a 102-88 loss, led by Kevin Love’s third triple-double of the season. At this point, Phoenix was alone in seventh. Memphis and Dallas were tied for eighth and by virtue of a 3-0 lead in the season series, the Mavericks were back in eighth with the Grizzlies dropping to ninth.
So when Phoenix opened up a 17-point lead—at home—against the Clippers, things were looking bright for the Suns (yeah, I went there).
That is until the Suns went 6-for-19 in the fourth quarter—again, it’s hard to shoot straight with both hands around your own neck—and the Clippers stormed back for a 112-108 win that, coupled with the Warriors becoming the latest road kill for San Antonio, clinched the Clips’ second division title in franchise history (and, oh by the way, their second in a row).
When the tiebreakers between the three clubs are applied, the Suns—with their defeat snatched from the jaws of victory—are now on the outside looking in, with Dallas and Memphis holding the No. 7 and No. 8 spots, respectively.
If nothing else, it’s proof that even in the vaunted Western Conference, sometimes the most difficult part of capturing one of those last playoff spots can be as simple as just staying out of one’s own way.
And with that, on to the NBA Power Rankings for this week (all statistical information via nba.com/Stats):