LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Devin Booker does not like the notion that the Phoenix Suns, whose playoff chances were beyond slim when the season was suspended, should simply be happy to be in the NBA’s bubble.
He sees it quite differently.
“People can say we have a nothing-to-lose mentality,” Booker said. “We don’t look at it like that.”
Hard to argue. The Suns, like a lot of other teams out West, have much to play for right now.
The best race in the bubble is the race for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference — and the right to face LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs starting in a couple weeks. The Lakers have already clinched the No. 1 seed, and now get to sit back and watch the mayhem that's about to happen.
Here’s the scenario: There are nine days left in the race, with six teams, all with five games remaining, fighting for one spot. It’s looking more and more likely that a play-in series, which will occur if the teams finishing eighth and ninth are within four games of one another when the regular season ends, will happen.
And Booker, who fended off both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on what became the winning jumper as time expired in Phoenix’s victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday, has the Suns — who haven’t been to the playoffs since 2010 — right in the thick of things.
“This whole experience, just being here in the bubble, we wanted to come down here and make some noise,” Booker said. “And that’s what we’re doing.”
Memphis still has the upper hand on the No. 8 spot, though the Grizzlies’ grip is less than secure there and Portland got within 1 1/2 games of them by beating Houston on Tuesday night. Memphis is 0-3 inside the bubble, still has a brutal schedule and lost Jaren Jackson Jr. for the remainder of the season on Monday to a meniscus tear in his left knee.
As play starts Wednesday, the Grizzlies are still eighth — though Portland, San Antonio, Sacramento, New Orleans and Phoenix are all within that four-game cutoff to force a play-in series.
“We’re fighting,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said.
The Spurs are trying to become the first team in NBA history with 23 consecutive playoff appearances. Like the Suns, they were in a precarious spot when the season was halted because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11.
But a couple wins in the bubble, combined with the play-in opportunity, has breathed new life into the Spurs’ chances as well.
“We’re here for a reason,” Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan said. “We’re here to compete no matter who we have, young guys, older guys, whoever. Guys have been doing a great job stepping up, taking on the challenge. We’ve been going out there trying to compete for 48 minutes.”
The Suns’ playoff drought is the second-longest one in the league, topped only by Sacramento. The last time the Kings played a postseason game was 2006.
As with the other clubs in the West’s race for No. 8, the Kings are also feeling like they’ve got a shot.
“We got five games left and if we figure it out — we run these five off — who knows where we are,” Kings forward Kent Bazemore said. “We’re still right in the thick of things. There isn’t a team who’s too out in front. ... We’re right there. The optimism is still there.”
The league was smart in setting up the schedule. Everybody in the race for eighth, in either conference, is done with their seeding games on Aug. 13, one day before the regular season ends.
If play-in series are needed, those games would happen on Aug. 15 and 16. So, by giving all those possible play-in-bound clubs Aug. 14 off, it assures that no team would have to play three consecutive days.
The East race is much simpler: Brooklyn and Orlando lead the way for the last two unclaimed spots on that half of the bracket, and Washington — off to an 0-3 start in the bubble — needs to go at least 4-1 in its final five games to have any chance at forcing a play-in series there.
That means the East field could be finalized in the next couple days.
The West, that looks like it'll go down to the wire.
“Still have a chance to get the playoff spot,” Kings guard De’Aaron Fox said. “Just don’t let go of the rope.”
Or maybe more aptly, don’t let the bubble burst.
A look at the remaining schedule for each contender for the No. 8 seed in the West:
Memphis — Utah (Wednesday), Oklahoma City (Friday), Toronto (Sunday), Boston (Aug. 11), Milwaukee (Aug. 13).
Portland — Denver (Thursday), L.A. Clippers (Saturday), Philadelphia (Sunday), Dallas (Aug. 11), Brooklyn (Aug. 13).
San Antonio — Denver (Wednesday), Utah (Friday), New Orleans (Sunday), Houston (Aug. 11), Utah (Aug. 13).
New Orleans — Sacramento (Thursday), Washington (Friday), San Antonio (Sunday), Sacramento (Aug. 11), Orlando (Aug. 13).
Phoenix — Indiana (Thursday), Miami (Saturday), Oklahoma City (Monday), Philadelphia (Aug. 11), Dallas (Aug. 13).
Sacramento — New Orleans (Thursday), Brooklyn (Friday), Houston (Sunday), New Orleans (Aug. 11), L.A. Lakers (Aug. 13).
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