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Six NBA teams are fighting for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference: the Grizzlies, Trail Blazers, Spurs, Pelicans, Suns, and Kings.
The Suns, Blazers, and Spurs have all gotten off to hot starts in the bubble and are within 3 games or fewer of the eighth and final playoff spot.
The Pelicans and Grizzlies have stumbled out of the gate, and while the Pelicans have the easiest schedule, the Grizzlies might be in trouble.
With five or six games remaining for each team, the race to the finish has the chance to be exciting, with each team jockeying for position to make the postseason.
With the NBA's bubble underway, a compelling race is unfolding for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
As of Wednesday morning, six teams were competing for the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference playoffs, with just 3.5 games separating the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies and 13th-place Sacramento Kings.
And while this race was tight entering the bubble, since games have begun, the race has only gotten tighter.
Here's a look at the standings and playoff race right now.
Three rising teams and one Cinderella
The "Cinderella" designation is usually reserved for the NCAA Tournament when a lower seed pulls off a few upsets. With the NBA's bubble somewhat resembling March Madness, the Phoenix Suns have taken on that title.
The Suns entered the bubble in 13th place and have won their first three games, including an impressive, buzzer-beating upset over the LA Clippers on Tuesday.
—NBA (@NBA) August 4, 2020
The Suns are the only 3-0 team in the bubble. They've moved into 12th place, are just three games back of the Grizzlies, and don't play a team ranked higher than fourth place in either conference the rest of the way.
However, the Suns may have trouble climbing the standings with so many teams in front of them, including the Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs, who are also surging in the bubble.
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The Blazers are 2-1 so far, with impressive wins over the Grizzlies and Houston Rockets. The Blazers are finally (mostly) healthy after missing their starting front-court of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins for the entire season. Damian Lillard hasn't shot the ball well in the bubble, but he is arguably the best player among the six teams fighting for the 8th seed.
Meanwhile, the Spurs have also pulled off two impressive wins in the bubble after being written off heading into the resumption of the season. San Antonio, which has a 22-year playoff streak on the line, has beaten the Grizzlies and the Kings and nearly beat the Philadelphia 76ers. Though short-handed, Gregg Popovich has gone small and gotten great guard play to thrust his team back into the playoff mix.
The Spurs have a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way, including a big game against the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday.
Two flailing teams open up the race
The Grizzlies and Pelicans entered the bubble as two of the favorites (the Blazers were the third) to force a play-in tournament. However, neither team has gotten off to a good start.
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The Grizzlies, who still hold a 1.5-game lead for the eighth place, have gone 0-3 to begin the bubble. They received bad news on Tuesday when versatile forward-center Jaren Jackson Jr. tore his meniscus, ruling him out for the remainder of the season.
Memphis has been the surprise team of the NBA season, but the layoff hasn't served them well. Star rookie point guard Ja Morant has struggled so far, shooting just 36% from the field and 10% from three so far. The Grizzlies are short on wing depth, and Dillon Brooks, the team's best wing, has also shot poorly: 36% from the field 21% from three.
The Pelicans also began the bubble 0-2 before picking up a big win over the Grizzlies on Monday. Much of the coverage of the Pelicans has focused on the minutes limit on Zion Williamson. The 2019 No. 1 pick sat out the end of the first game of the bubble, as the Pelicans blew a late lead to the Jazz. He finally played the end of a game over Memphis, but still played just 25 minutes.
The Pelicans have a talented roster but are top-heavy, and the team has been outscored with its best players on the floor (much of that is due to a blowout loss to the Clippers on Saturday). New Orleans is still in 10th place but will have to get better, consistent play (and minutes) from its best players.
Who's best positioned to make the eighth and ninth seeds for a play-in tournament?
There will be a play-in "tournament" if the eighth- and ninth-place teams are separated by four or fewer games. Right now, it would come down to Memphis and Portland, with the Blazers having to beat the Grizzlies twice to advance to the playoffs.
What are the chances of those matchups changing?
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The problem for teams below them is the schedule. Each team has 5-6 "seeding" games left in the bubble. For a team like the Suns to pass the Blazers into the ninth seed, they'd have to win a majority of their games while hoping the Blazers lose a majority of theirs. Asking any team to go 4-1 while another goes 1-4 will be difficult (though, of course, not impossible).
The Pelicans stand to gain or lose the most. Over the next 10 days, New Orleans plays the Kings twice and the Spurs once, two teams below them in the standings. The results of those games will have a great impact on the playoff race.
New Orleans also has perhaps the easiest schedule: their other two games are against the Washington Wizards and Orlando Magic. Don't rule out the Pelicans yet.
Meanwhile, the other teams in eighth to 13th place don't play each other the rest of the way. Memphis could likely hold onto their spot by simply going .500 the rest of the way.
If the bubble has shown anything so far, it's been that it's unpredictable. The finish to this race should have more excitement in store.
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