For the first time in NBA history, there will be a play-in game(s) to make the NBA playoffs this weekend for the Western Conference. What teams will be playing in that game(s) won’t be settled until Thursday in all likelihood but the Celtics are positioned to have a very significant say in the process for the Memphis Grizzlies.
Currently, the Grizzlies still hold a 1/2 game lead for the No. 8 seed but there are still four teams in the mix for the play-in game (Portland, San Antonio and Sacramento) as of Monday morning. That means there is still a chance that Memphis will be knocked out of an 8 vs. 9 play-in scenario entirely if they lose their two final seeding games and two of the three teams chasing them (POR, SAS, PHX) win their final two seeding games.
The Western Conference play-in game (8 vs. 9) is set for Saturday (2:30 p.m. ET, ABC). If the 8-seed wins Saturday's game, that team will advance to the playoffs. However, if the 9-seed wins, a second contest will be played on Sunday (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
A look at how things stand currently in the standings
8. MEM: 33-38
9. POR 33-39 0.5 GB
10. SAS: 31-38 1 GB
11. PHX 31-39 1.5 GB
The fact that three of these four teams will finish the season with a different number of games played (SA: 71, MEM/PHX: 73, POR: 74) makes things a little more complicated to sort out from a scenario standpoint. The NBA has emphasized that they will use winning percentage over tiebreakers in the event where teams play an uneven number of games, so let’s map out how that will work for all the teams involved.
Memphis: The Grizzlies can guarantee a spot in the play-in game with a win in one of their last two games or multiple losses by two of the Blazers/Suns/Spurs. A win and a Blazers loss will give them the No. 8 seed for the game.
Blazers: Two straight wins will clinch a spot in the play-in game for them. Two wins and a Memphis loss gives them the No. 8 seed heading into the play-in game.
Spurs/Suns: Will need help in form of losses by Memphis and Portland in order to move up in standings but both could still technically take 8th or 9th seed by winning out.
Memphis: TUES vs. BOS, THURS vs. MIL
Portland: TUES vs. DAL, THURS vs. BKN
San Antonio: TUES vs. SAC, THURS vs. ORL
Phoenix: MON vs. OKC, TUES vs. PHI, THURS vs. DAL
The Grizzlies easily have the toughest schedule of the bunch on paper but they will be playing a pair of teams in Boston and Milwaukee that won’t have anything on the line from a seeding standpoint in those games. However, Stevens has indicated the C’s will want to play their regulars usual minutes in one of their two final games and doing so against a Grizzlies team that will be desperate for a win stands to benefit the C’s down the line as well with a potentially better pick.
“You obviously want to have great health, but conditioning is a great part of that, so we want all of our primary guys to play at least two more times out of three,” Stevens said on Saturday. “All of our sports science people and everybody else feels a full week in between games is enough – certainly don’t want more than that. We play our guys, nothing is set in stone yet, that’s the way we’re going to approach it.”
Sunday’s overtime win against the Magic saw a few players like Hayward and Tatum pushing their minutes into the high 30s so it’s possible the Stevens will cap their minutes closer to 30-32 against Memphis. That should lead the coaching staff towards giving them the day off against Washington in the seeding finale on Thursday, proving an ample rest runway before the start of the playoffs on Monday or Tuesday.
The intriguing part about all these games for teams beyond Memphis' schedule though is that only a couple of opponents of Portland/San Antonio/Phoenix have anything to play for.
Portland: Mavericks and Nets are locked into the No. 7 seed in each respective conference.
San Antonio: The Kings have been eliminated and the Magic are locked into No. 8.
Phoenix: The Thunder and Sixers still have seeding to play for, making this the toughest schedule in the mix for the 5-0 squad.
Will teams with nothing to play for feel obligated to play their guys against squads still fighting for playoff positioning?