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Race to the Playoffs: Phoenix Suns have the edge for 8th in West

Less than 40 games to go, and the Phoenix Suns still have a strong lead for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

All season, the magic number has been 50 wins. No team in NBA history has won 50 games and failed to qualify for the playoffs. Under the current playoff rules - 8 teams per conference - no team winning at least 49 games has missed the postseason either.

Last year, the Phoenix Suns won 48 games but missed the playoffs by one win but, effectively, two games. Memphis won just 49 but had taken the season series so really the Suns would have had to win 50 games outright to qualify. Prior to that, only Golden State several years ago had as many as 48 games and missed the playoffs.

50 is the magic number.

But as the season wears on, its becoming more and more apparent that the 8th seed will need something less than 50 wins to make it to the big dance.

No way to 50

Here is the latest 50-win watch:

  • Suns need to go 23-12, a 67.6% winning percentage the rest of the way, to finish 50-32
  • New Orleans Pelicans need to go 26-10, a 72% winning percentage
  • Oklahoma City Thunder need to go 27-9, a 75% winning percentage

As you can see, it's quite unlikely for any of these teams to reach the 50-win mark. Of the three, the most likely team would be the Suns, who have won 15 of their last 21 games since inserting Alex Len in the starting lineup and deciding to play the Trips together on a regular basis.

Suns in the lead

According to the popular playoff odds sites, the Suns have the best chance to make the post season. Both ESPN and Basketball-reference give the Suns twice the odds of OKC or the Pelicans, but just above 50% chance overall.

Many say that the Thunder are being undervalued, given the early season injuries, but the Thunder are also just 6-6 in their last 12 games. Not exactly that vaunted 70% win rate that Durant/Westbrook enjoyed last season when they played together. And even then, a 70% win rate from now on just gets the Thunder to 48 wins or so. Is that enough? Maybe. But let's see the Thunder start playing at that pace before anointing them.

Trials and Tribulations

On the plus side, the Suns haven't lost to a lesser team since mid-December, while the Thunder just lost to the Knicks last night and the Pelicans lost to the Nuggets.

The Suns problem is that they still haven't shown an ability to beat the top teams in the West on a regular basis (4-3 at home vs. 1-7 on the road) and still have 18 games against those teams the rest of the way, leaving only 17 games against the rest of the league.

But the Suns problems are lesser than OKC's or the Pellies' unless the Suns fall off the face of the cliff in the second half. The only way either OKC or NOLA makes the postseason is if the Suns stumble, because the Suns are 3 wins up on the Pelicans and 4 wins up on OKC.

The Pelicans have 15 remaining games against the West's best, including two against the Suns. The Thunder have 17 of their own. The Pellies and Thunder have a home-and-home against each other this coming week. But worse news for these teams is on the injury front. Kevin Durant (big toe) sat out the last two games for the Thunder, and Anthony Davis is getting an MRI for a groin injury after a nasty fall the other night.

Just win, baby

The Suns just need to keep winning games, wherever they can and maybe, just maybe the race for 8th won't be as nail-biting as recent blown leads at home.

But then again, this IS the Suns. They wouldn't be doing it right if they didn't give up the lead on 8th in the final couple weeks only to close it out (or not) in the final game or two.

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