LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Tiebreakers won’t factor into who qualifies for the Western Conference play-in series. The four remaining teams in the race for those two spots will all play a different total of games in this coronavirus-interrupted season, meaning none of those clubs can finish with identical records.
So, winning percentages will decide everything.
And the margins there could be razor close — just about the slimmest possible.
A season like none other in NBA history may get a finish like none other, at least in the West. An analysis by The Associated Press shows there are two scenarios where the final difference between teams in the play-in race could be less than 0.001% — yes, less than one thousandth of a percent.
Memphis, Portland, San Antonio and Phoenix — the still-unbeaten-in-the-bubble, 6-0 at Disney Suns — are the last four teams standing in the race for the last West spot. The margin between the eighth-place Grizzlies and 11th-place Spurs, entering Tuesday, is just one game, and all four clubs have two games remaining.
By Thursday night at the latest, it’ll be known who the two clubs are that will be headed to the best-of-two play-in series, where the ninth-place finisher will have to beat the eighth-place finisher twice to advance.
That series starts Saturday on ABC. Game 2, if necessary, is Sunday on ESPN. And by then, finally, someone will be able to start preparing for a West first-round series against the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers.
The super-close scenarios are mind-blowing.
If Portland finishes 2-0 and Memphis finishes 1-1, then the Trail Blazers would finish eighth and the Grizzlies ninth — separated in the standings by 0.00075 percentage points.
The other is this: Should Phoenix and San Antonio both win their final two games, it would see the Suns finish ahead of the Spurs by 0.00096 percentage points.
A look at the field:
Record entering Tuesday: 33-37, 8th in the West
Remaining games: Boston on Tuesday, Milwaukee on Thursday
Outlook: Not only do the Grizzlies control their own destiny, but they catch the bonus of their last two opponents having absolutely nothing at stake. Boston is locked into the No. 3 seed in the East, Milwaukee the No. 1 seed. For Memphis, the math is very simple. If the Grizzlies win one game, they clinch no worse than a play-in spot. Win two, they’ll finish eighth and hold the upper hand in the play-in series. But if they go 0-2, the door opens for others.
Record entering Tuesday: 33-39, 9th in the West
Remaining games: Dallas on Tuesday, Brooklyn on Thursday
Outlook: Getting Dallas on the second half of the Mavericks’ back-to-back Tuesday isn’t the greatest news, especially since the Mavs can still get to the No. 6 seed and Luka Doncic — who didn’t play Monday — sounds as if he could play Tuesday. The Nets are locked into the No. 7 spot in the East, meaning they’ll face defending champion Toronto in the first round. A 2-0 finish would assure Portland a spot; a 1-1 finish means the Blazers would need some help. And Portland could go 0-2 in its final games and still get in, but San Antonio and Phoenix would have to both go 0-2 as well for that to happen.
Record entering Tuesday: 32-39, 10th in the West
Remaining games: Philadelphia on Tuesday, Dallas on Thursday
Outlook: The Suns are the story of the bubble, 6-0 at Disney so far — but even 8-0 might not guarantee them a spot in the play-in game. They play Philadelphia on Tuesday, a 76ers team that will be without Ben Simmons (knee) and Joel Embiid (ankle). The Suns would get into the play-in series with two more wins — combined with at least one Portland loss or an 0-2 finish by the Grizzlies. If the Suns go 1-1 in their final two games, Portland would have to go 0-2 to give Phoenix a chance at the play-in. An 0-2 finish would have the Suns going home before the weekend.
Record entering Tuesday: 31-38, 11th in the West
Remaining games: Houston on Tuesday, Utah on Thursday
Outlook: There is a way for San Antonio to get to the No. 8 seed with a 2-0 finish, and there’s also a way for the Spurs to miss the play-in series entirely — also with a 2-0 finish. Any loss would all but doom the Spurs’ chances; going 1-1 would leave them with a .451 winning percentage. Memphis won’t fall below that (the worst the Grizzlies can do is .458) and Portland and Phoenix would both exceed .451 by simply going 1-1. The Spurs are playing for what would be a 23rd consecutive playoff appearance, something no NBA franchise has ever accomplished.