Saturday, May 25, 2024
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Suns top seed, plenty left to decide

DENVER (AP) – Reigning NBA MVP Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets certainly figured a recent stretch of winning 14 of 18 games would propel them in the Western Conference standings.

Or at least give them some breathing room in the post-season race. Not the case.

What their 14-4 run did was allow them to merely tread water in the sixth spot – teetering on the brink of tumbling into the play-in scenario for the teams that finish between seventh and 10th in the conference.

“The depth of the Western Conference, I think, is incredible,” marvelled Nuggets coach Michael Malone, whose team has been playing without injured standouts Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. “The West is loaded.”

The final two weeks of the regular season should provide entertaining theatre as teams jockey for playoff position. With, of course, the notable exception of the Phoenix Suns, who can sit back and wait to see who they play after sewing up the top seed in the West.

Everyone else has work to do. In the East, there is very little settled, either. The top six teams are separated by just four-and-a-half games, with Miami currently leading the way.

Every matchup is a big one for the Lakers. The road may have gotten even bumpier for them after LeBron James hurt his ankle. He very well could be limited going forward – or even possibly miss some time.

Obviously, the Lakers can’t afford that. Not with the Lakers dangerously close to falling out of the play-in. The New Orleans Pelicans are in the number nine spot and the Lakers in 10th.

There was a preview of that possible matchup last Sunday as the Pelicans rallied from 23 points down late in the second quarter to knock off the Lakers 116-108.

James didn’t hide his feelings over blowing a big lead in a game in which he twisted his left ankle. “Excuse my language but that’s what it feels like,” James said after using profanity to describe his emotions. “It feels like another wasted opportunity obviously for myself and for our team.”

There’s no margin for error for the Lakers with the San Antonio Spurs – winners of four straight – only a half-game out of the last spot.

At the moment, the Los Angeles Clippers occupy the eighth position. Imagine if they were to get back some combination of Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Norman Powell.

All of a sudden, they’re an even scarier eighth seed.

The current standings would pit the Clippers against the Timberwolves in a play-in scenario. But the Timberwolves could still catch the Nuggets for number six.

Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves remain two games behind the Nuggets and they play on Friday in Denver. Whoever grabs the sixth seed will more than likely draw Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors, who are third in the standings. Memphis comfortably sits in the second spot.

“It’s really, really hard going into the playoffs to predict a clear winner,” said Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault, whose team is eliminated from the post-season. That’s why being at home could mean everything. Which is precisely why the Dallas Mavericks’ 114-100 win over the Utah last Sunday may prove so pivotal.

The Mavericks moved a game ahead of the Jazz in the race for the fourth and fifth seeds in the West, and earned a split of the season series. The home team has won all four games.

“That’s what we wanted, but it’s a long way to go,” said Mavericks All-Star point guard Luka Doncic, whose team hosted the Lakers on last night in another important matchup.