What: Portland Trail Blazers (41-29, 5th in West) at Phoenix Suns (48-21, 2nd in West)
When: Thursday, 7:00 PM AZ time
Where: Phoenix Suns Arena
Watch: Bally Sports Arizona
Listen: 98.7 FM
All the mud! That’s what the playoff picture looks like with only three games left in the regular season. As I mentioned yesterday, the Suns can still conceivably face any of five different teams in the first round, although the Lakers, Warriors and Grizzlies are the most likely possibilities. The Blazers and Mavericks are only one game ahead of the Lakers with three to go, but they each have the tie-breaker which means the Lakers would have to go 2-0 in their remaining games with one of the Blazers or Mavericks finishing 0-2.
The Suns can help their cause — if the cause is to avoid the Lakers — by beating the Blazers on Thursday night. Sure, lots of other things have to happen to move the Lakers up, but it starts with the Suns winning this game.
The Blazers, on the other hand, almost certainly don’t want to drop to 7th and have to win play-in game(s) to stay alive. They will be desperate to win out, which includes beating the Suns and then the (likely resting) Nuggets in their final game.
Let’s break it down further.
What a win means for the Blazers
At 41-29, the Blazers have the inside track on the 5th seed for the chance to play the 4th seeded Nuggets in the first round. They have the same record as the 6th-seeded Mavericks, but won the season series 2-1 over the Mavs so they would get the higher seed if they finish tied.
The Blazers really want the 5th or 6th seed to stay out of the play-in tournament, so they need to win at least one more game. That’s it. Just one game to stay at 5th or 6th. So you can bet they will be desperate to make that the Suns game.
This is quite a turnaround for the Blazers, who just two weeks ago looked bad and locked into the play-in. But they righted their ship and have won 9 of 10 to put themselves in the driver’s seat for the 5th seed. Their run has had some cupcakes but includes wins over the Jazz, Lakers, Nets and Grizzlies.
The Blazers are finally mostly healthy, and the four-headed tandem of Jusuf Nurkic, Damian Lillard, Norman Powell and C.J. McCollum has been on a roll.
What a win means for the Suns
There’s still an outside chance the Suns can overtake the Jazz for the top seed, but would have to go 3-0 to finish the season and hope the Jazz lose one of their two remaining games: vs the Thunder (LOL) or the Kings (heyyyy Kinnnnggggssss! We still love you Richaun!). Getting the top seed would mean avoiding any Lakers talk, and instead likely playing the Warriors or Grizzlies in round one.
But more than the top seed, the Suns are playing for self confidence, or at least self-correction. The Suns are certain to have home court in the playoffs, but they will want to prove they still have their mojo heading there.
They still have the league’s best record against winning teams (26-11) but these last three losses — Hawks, Lakers, Warriors — have looked a bit ugly and makes you wonder if they can beat any winning teams again. Even the Suns themselves — the young ones especially — have to feel a tiny shade of discomfort after the consecutive losses to the Lakers and Warriors.
Yet, let’s not sweep that 26-11 record against winning teams under any rug. The 26 wins are 2 more than ANY other team in the league, and the 11 losses are 2 fewer than any other team. Meaning, the Suns have been the best team in the league against teams with winning records. Guess what kind of teams you see in the playoffs? Exactly.
A loss to Portland would not be the worst thing. Even if they lose to Portland, they will finish the season with the most wins and fewest losses to winning teams. And they still would only need to win one weekend game against the Spurs to keep the 2nd seed. But not one person in that Suns locker room wants a three-game losing streak heading into the final weekend.
You better believe the Suns will be ready and focused for this one.
Probable Starting Lineups
As far as big rotational injuries go, the Suns are without Cameron Johnson (wrist) while the Blazers are generally healthy.
Both teams have other players out (Abdel Nader, Zach Collins, Nassir Little), but they are not a big part of the rotation this season for their teams.
Over the season, the Suns are a much better team than the Blazers and have won both prior matchups (Feb 22 and March 11). But over the past 10 games, the Blazers have gotten healthier and are frankly just red-hot.
Take a look at what’s happened in the last 10 games. Pfft. The Suns and Blazers have switched places. The Suns are now the all-offense guys while the Blazers are good on both ends.
Within the last 10, the Suns have had more health issues. They have only had Jae Crowder for three of those games, and apparently he’s more important to the D than we thought. The other development is Frank Kaminsky playing all 10 games (at 16.4 minutes) while Dario Saric has only appeared in 6 (at 12.4 minutes). Neither is a great defender, but Saric > Frank on that end.
The Suns would argue that their motivations have changed in the last several games. They clinched a playoff berth a while ago, and have been pretty much locked into the 2nd seed all season with very little threat to drop or rise with Utah’s cake schedule. The offense has hummed (tops in NBA since the All-Star Break) so the defense has been able to slowly lapse without missing wins... until these last four games (1-3 record).
I would argue the Suns need to get back to good on defense these last three games and not just assume they will get it right at playoff time.
For the Blazers, health has been the difference too. Namely, Jusuf Nurkic in the middle, but also C.J. McCollum being fully healthy again. Damian Lillard spent a lot of this season without either of those wing men. Adding Norman Powell at the trade deadline has a boost too, allowing the Blazers to start three shooters around defenders RoCo and Nurk.
Suns need to win this one and restore faith in the Timeline.
But the way these teams have been playing, and factoring in the Blazers needing the win more than the Suns, I worry this will be another ‘uh oh’ game.