The Race For the Final Playoff Spots

Ever since the NBA expanded its playoff format to 16 teams in 1984, the No. 8 seed in each conference has often times been regarded as a pushover and a club that the No. 1 seed would dispatch with in short order before playoff series with other, better teams.

For the first 10 years of that playoff format, that was the case, as it was 1994 before Denver beat Seattle in the first 8-over-1 upset. It was the only the year before that when a No. 8 seed took a conference's top team to a deciding first-round game.

While the top regular season club in a conference is still a prohibitive favorite in any year's playoffs to advance from the opening matchup, the inevitability of the series winner has changed in the last decade.

In 2007, the Don Nelson and the Warriors famously ran the 67-win Mavericks off the floor in a six-game shocker. Four years later, Zach Randolph and the Grizzlies bruised their way past the Spurs, and two years ago, the Sixers dispatched of the Derrick Rose-less Bulls.

This season, the winner of East's top seed, be it Miami or Indiana, figures to have an easy time with whoever claims eighth in that conference, right now likely to be Charlotte, Indiana or New York with an under-.500 record. But in the West, the three teams competing for the last two playoff spots are all at least 10 games over .500 as of Saturday, and each would pose a unique and challenging test to the No. 1 team in the West.

If the season ended after Friday night's games, Phoenix would be out of the playoffs with the ninth best record in the Western Conference at 40-29. If put in the East standings, Phoenix would have the third best record in that conference. Dallas and Memphis sit just above the Suns. And despite each team's solid seasons, one of the three teams will be at home come the third weekend of April, barring some sort of massive collapse by Portland or Golden State, or an almighty hot streak by Minnesota.

Even though Phoenix has spent most of the season in the top eight, it bears reminding that they were predicted to have as many wins as Utah or Orlando at this point in the season. Their fast style of play and middling defensive aptitude would make for fun, late-night playoff viewing against Oklahoma City or San Antonio and a litany of 120-116-type games. Watching Goran Dragic run a pick-and-roll is one of the most artistically pleasing regular occurrences in an NBA season that has been very fun to watch in general. Gerald Green has finally found his destiny as a premier heat-check guy, and the front-court consists of several quality role players.

If Phoenix does miss the playoffs, a 2-7 stretch in late February and early March where it couldn't even guard teams like the Jazz and Cavs will be a big reason why. Memphis now holds the No. 8 spot in large part due consistency and defense after the New Year, and especially after the All-Star Break. The Grizzlies haven't lost consecutive games since the beginning of February, and have held opponents at or under a point per possession eight times in that span. That's a remarkable number when considering that the league at large is at 1.06 per possession this season.

There's almost a poetic element to the fact that one of Phoenix or Memphis could miss the playoffs, because each team is so diametrically opposed to the other. Where Phoenix likes to run, Memphis likes to walk the ball up, playing at the slowest pace in the league. Where Phoenix's strength is its backcourt, Memphis is anchored by Marc Gasol and Randolph. And where Phoenix is almost Houston-like in its penchant to shoot 3-pointers, Memphis attempts less of them than anyone.

Meanwhile, the Dallas Mavericks have been playing at a pretty high level all season, but have never created any separation between themselves and the playoff danger zone. However, the Mavs are currently in the midst of a season-long homestand that began last Monday and runs until April 1.

Dallas hasn't gotten enough credit league-wide this season for being an offensive juggernaut. The Mavs are only behind Portland, the Clippers and Miami for offensive efficiency. But on the other side of the coin, Dallas has the worst defense of any likely playoff team, ranking 23rd. Rebounding on both sides of the ball has also doomed them in many losses.

The NBA's schedule-makers could not have laid out the season's final week any better for the three West teams fighting for the last playoff spots in one of the most competitive conferences ever.

The Mavs close the season with a home game against the Suns and a road trip to Memphis. The Grizz have a game at Phoenix just before hosting that game against Dallas, and Phoenix's season-finale at Sacramento is immediately preceded by those aforementioned games against the other two playoff-bubble contenders. Each team plays about the same number of games against over-.500 and West foes, but Dallas has a definite advantage due to playing more home games.

Once Dallas, Memphis and/or Phoenix do make it into the playoffs, a very tough series against San Antonio or Oklahoma City will await. However, once all 82 games are played, the spread in records between first and eighth is likely to be less than 15 games, which is less than is historically the case. Whereas before, bottom seeds were disregarded, the current seventh- to ninth-placed teams in the West can take solace in recent NBA history.

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