The West’s Pre-Playoff Mini-Tournament

The battle for the last two spots in the Western Conference playoffs has come down to an incredibly tight race between three teams – the Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns, and Memphis Grizzlies. To make it even more exciting, each of these teams will play one another in the final days of the season, starting Saturday night with Dallas hosting Phoenix. The three teams are currently separated by just one game. Phoenix is percentage points ahead of Dallas, with Memphis currently on the outside, but tied with the Mavs in the loss column.

Phoenix controls its own destiny thanks to a one-game advantage in the loss column over Dallas, but they also have the toughest closing schedule. They travel to San Antonio tonight to take on the team with the league’s best record. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies play two cupcakes (the Lakers and 76ers) in addition to their matchups against the Suns and Mavs, while Dallas has only the two games against their competitors for the last two playoff spots left on their schedule.

The tie-breakers are surprisingly straight forward given that these teams will play each other in the closing days of the regular season. Memphis has played Dallas and Phoenix three times each so far – they are 3-0 against Phoenix, and 0-3 against Dallas, so neither of the remaining games involving the Grizzlies will impact the head-to-head tiebreakers. The Mavs and Suns will only have played each other three times when it’s all said and done, and they have split the two games thus far. The winner of Saturday night’s game between the two will hold the tiebreaker.

These tiebreakers hold up if only two of the teams finish with the same record – Memphis would have the advantage over Phoenix, but not Dallas, and the Mavs/Suns winner Saturday would have the advantage over the other. The real complexity comes if all three teams finish with the same record. In that case the next tiebreaker would be combined winning percentage against the other two teams. If it makes it that far, the results from the head to head matchups over the next few days will have a big impact on who gets in.

So who do the other playoff teams, specifically the Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder (the likely opponents for the winners of this end of season sprint), want to see make it out of this impromptu round-robin and into the actual playoffs?

None of these teams has been hotter than the Grizzlies of late. Since the start of March, they are 14-7 (it’s worth noting that they’ve all been playing well – the worst record of the bunch in that time is the Mavs’ 12-8). Unfortunately for Memphis, their brand of grit-and-grind basketball, emphasizing tough defense and the high post/low post synergy of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph for their offense, plays into the hands of both the Spurs and the Thunder. The offenses are too easy to stop in a seven game series, and relying on defense is all well and good until you have to face Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook or the San Antonio offensive machine. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili (along with newcomer Kawhi Leonard) aren’t about to lose their way against a Memphis team they’ve owned for the last couple of seasons. Mike Conley is having a great season, and Randolph and Gasol keep plugging along, but neither San Antonio nor OKC will worry if they draw the Griz in round 1.

The wide open offensive attacks of Dallas and Phoenix offer a lot more problems – for the Thunder. It helps that each has a sweet-shooting big to pull Serge Ibaka away from the rim. Dirk Nowitzki is shooting as well as ever, and the Suns’ use of Channing Frye has opened up the floor for the rest of the Phoenix offense. These offenses, and innovative coaching from Jeff Hornacek and Rick Carlisle, may keep a series between OKC and either of those teams close, although the Thunder offense would make them the favorites in either series.

As for the Spurs, the only one of the three squads vying to make the last two spots to pull off even a single win against them was the Suns. Phoenix will have a chance to pull even tonight on the road, but it’s unlikely that anyone is upsetting San Antonio in the first round barring an injury. Just getting into the playoffs shouldn’t be the goal for Memphis, Dallas, and Phoenix – avoiding the Spurs’ juggernaut may be the real prize.