The Eastern Conference playoffs are all but settled. As for the West? Well, not so much. When seeding play began two weeks ago, the race for eighth looked like a pretty open and shut case with Memphis, led by Rookie of the Year hopeful Ja Morant, holding a comfortable 3.5-game lead over the ninth-place Blazers. That cushion has since vanished, as Portland now finds itself in the driver’s seat for the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot. Look at this madness.
It’s not hyperbole to call this one of the most compelling playoff races we’ve seen in recent memory with four teams vying for the final seat at the Western Conference table. Jaren Jackson’s injury has done the slumping Grizzlies no favors (neither has their schedule with brutal matchups against Milwaukee, Toronto and Boston) while Devin Booker’s inspired play has propelled the undefeated Suns from afterthought status (many wondered whether they were even worthy of a bubble invitation) to a fringe playoff team with aspirations of upsetting the top-seeded Lakers in Round 1.
Further complicating matters is the debut of the NBA’s newly-instituted tiebreaker series, which warrants some explanation. Essentially, if the ninth-place team is within four games of No. 8 (which will undoubtedly be the case when seeding play concludes Friday), those two squads will slug it out for the final playoff spot. No. 9 would have to win both tiebreaker games to qualify while the eighth seed would need just one victory to punch their postseason ticket. The first tiebreaker matchup will be staged Saturday at 2:30 PM ET with a decisive Game 2 (if necessary) to follow Sunday at 4:30 PM ET.
Memphis, Phoenix, Portland and San Antonio will each hold their final seeding games Thursday with two of those teams moving on to the weekend. We’ll get into the weeds with tiebreaker scenarios in a minute but the CliffsNotes is this—the Blazers control their own destiny. With a win over the Nets Thursday night, Portland will advance to this weekend’s tiebreaker series and, by virtue of having the No. 8 seed, would only need to win one of the two games to guarantee a playoff berth. Brooklyn is already assured of the Eastern Conference’s No. 7 seed (they’ll face the defending champion Raptors in Round 1), leaving them with essentially nothing to play for in Thursday’s seeding finale. The Blazers should take care of business in that one, though this wouldn’t be the first time Brooklyn has played spoiler following the Nets’ stunning upset of Milwaukee as 19-point underdogs last week.
As promised, here are the seeding scenarios for the Western Conference. Tiebreakers will be determined by winning percentage (this puts the Spurs, who have played two fewer games than both Memphis and Phoenix and three fewer than Portland, at a disadvantage), followed by head-to-head record, division record (if in the same division), conference record against playoff teams and finally record against Eastern Conference playoff teams.
Portland Trail Blazers, 34-39 (.466 winning percentage)
Bubble Record: 5-2
Next game: Thursday vs. Brooklyn Nets, 9 PM ET
How Portland can clinch the eighth seed: With a win or losses by one of Memphis, Phoenix and San Antonio
How Portland can clinch the ninth seed: Two combined losses from Memphis, Phoenix and San Antonio
Memphis Grizzlies, 33-39 (.458)
Bubble Record: 1-6
Next game: Thursday vs. Milwaukee Bucks, 4 PM ET
How Memphis can clinch the eighth seed: A win and a Portland loss
How Memphis can clinch the ninth seed: A win or losses by both Phoenix and San Antonio
Phoenix Suns, 33-39 (.458)
Bubble Record: 7-0
Next game: Thursday vs. Dallas Mavericks, 4 PM ET
How Phoenix can clinch the eighth seed: A win and losses by both Portland and Memphis
How Phoenix can clinch the ninth seed: A win and a loss by one of Portland or Memphis
San Antonio Spurs, 32-38 (.457)
Bubble Record: 5-2
Next game: Thursday vs. Utah Jazz, 6:30 PM ET
How San Antonio can clinch the eighth seed: A win with losses by Portland, Memphis and Phoenix
How San Antonio can clinch the ninth seed: A win with losses by two of Portland, Memphis and Phoenix
With the Lakers limping into the playoffs—they’ve won just three of seven in Orlando, albeit with little to play for after already earning home-court advantage in the Western Conference (if such a thing exists inside a bubble)—the No. 8 seed could easily give Los Angeles a scare in Round 1. In fact, Charles Barkley sees the Damian Lillard-led Blazers making a deep playoff run, even with heavyweights like the Lakers, Clippers and Rockets standing in their way. Will the Blazers prove Chuck right? It’s time to find out.