Only in the Western Conference would the playoff seeding be completely up in the air, aside from the No. 1 spot, with just about 10 games remaining for each team. The Phoenix Suns currently sit in fifth place, but they are within arm’s reach of the No. 2 seed (two games back) and are only three games up on the No. 8-seeded Portland Trail Blazers.
With that said, it’s obviously difficult to pinpoint one or two potential first-round playoff opponents, so why not discuss all seven? Here is a list of the seven other Western Conference playoff hopefuls, ranked from 1-7, with No. 1 being the Suns’ most-favorable first-round opponent, and No. 7 being their least-favorable first-round foe:
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Oklahoma City Thunder have had an outstanding regular season thus far, especially considering their expectations, and have played the Suns about as tough as any team in the league. They are one of the most talented young teams in the NBA that will undoubtedly be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs for years to come — but not this year.
The big three of Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook is a scary matchup for any team, but the Thunder don’t have much depth beyond that trio. The team also has an average age of 25, and the only experienced veterans besides Nick Collison are guys like Etan Thomas and Kevin Ollie that don’t even crack the rotation.
It is always tough to say that you want to face off against the NBA’s leading scorer, Durant (29.7 points per game), but the Thunder are simply too young and inexperienced to make a major splash in the battle-tested Western Conference.
2. Portland Trail Blazers
Although the Suns dropped two of three games against the Trail Blazers this season, Portland simply doesn’t have the fire power to keep up with the Suns in a seven-game series. The biggest worry is that Portland will slow down the game to a grind-it-out defensive battle, but the Suns proved last Sunday that they can come out victorious in that type of game.
Brandon Roy is always a tough matchup for the Suns, and LaMarcus Aldridge and Marcus Camby make up a top-notch frontline, but Portland just doesn’t have enough weapons on offense to compete for a full seven games. The Trail Blazers would certainly give the Suns a run for their money, but every team in the West will be competitive, Portland just happens to be one of the worst of the best.
3. Denver Nuggets
Season series: Denver defeated the Suns 105-99 in Denver on Dec. 12; Phoenix defeated the Nuggets 109-97 in Denver on Feb. 3; Phoenix defeated the Nuggets 101-85 in Phoenix on March 1; they meet again on April 13 in Phoenix.
Phoenix matches up extremely well with Denver. Both teams feature high-octane offenses, but the Suns have proven they can get stops when it matters and win the all-important battle of the boards. The Suns showed that they can bother Carmelo Anthony, who was 7-of-21 in their last meeting, and the Denver offense as a whole, as they held them to an average of 91.0 points in their last two matchups.
The Suns will have their hands full if they have to face Denver without homecourt advantage, as the Nuggets are 30-6 at home, but they’ve already won in Mile High this season, and I like their chances against Carmelo and company.
4. Utah Jazz
Season series: Utah defeated the Suns 124-115 in Utah on Jan. 25; Utah defeated the Suns 116-108 in Phoenix on March 4; Phoenix defeated the Jazz 110-100 on March 19 in Phoenix; they will meet again on April 14 in Utah.
If the season ended today, the Suns and Jazz would be squaring off in the first round. Luckily for the Suns, they still have a chance to get out of that five spot and avoid Utah. The Jazz have given the Suns trouble all season long, and if I’m the Suns, playing in front of the hostile crowd in EnergySolutions Arena is the last thing I want.
Although Phoenix defeated them fairly convincingly last Friday, the Jazz are a tough matchup for the Suns. They are a very mentally tough team that is usually relentless down the stretch, which was evident when they stole the first two games from the Suns in the fourth quarter.
Deron Williams is a very tough cover for Steve Nash and Carlos Boozer has also been successful against Phoenix, averaging 19.7 points and 17.0 rebounds this season. Phoenix obviously has the talent to take care of Utah, but the Jazz are about as tough of a matchup as any in the West, and if the Suns can’t capture homecourt advantage, the last place I want to be playing at the end of April is in Utah.
5. Dallas Mavericks
The Mavs have struggled a bit since rattling off 13 straight wins at the end of February and into March, but if I’m the Suns, I’m crossing my fingers that I don’t have to deal with Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk has torched the Suns in the playoffs for years, and the Suns simply have no answer for him, as he’s averaged 26.7 points per game against them this season.
The additions of Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood have been huge for the Mavs. Dallas is a very beatable team, and Jason Richardson averages 20.3 points per game against them this season (we all know how well that bodes for the Suns), but Dirk almost always has his way with Phoenix, and this season should be no different.
6. San Antonio Spurs
This one is a no-brainer. Every person that’s watched the NBA for the last decade knows exactly why the Suns want to avoid the San Antonio Spurs at all costs. Sure, the Spurs haven’t exactly been playing stellar basketball this season, but you know they will turn it on when it counts.
Tony Parker will be back come playoff time, and the Spurs will do what they do. No, this team doesn’t have Robert Horry to hit big threes and hip check Steve Nash into the scorer’s table or Bruce Bowen to knee him where no man wants to be kneed, but Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Parker is all they need to give the Suns trouble. If these teams did square off there is no doubting it would be entertaining to watch, but given the history, if I’m the Suns, I want no part of San Antonio.
7. Los Angeles Lakers
Season series: The Lakers defeated the Suns 121-102 in Los Angeles on Nov. 12; the Lakers defeated the Suns 108-88 in Los Angeles on Dec. 6; Phoenix defeated the Lakers 118-103 in Phoenix on Dec. 28; the Lakers defeated the Suns 102-96 in Phoenix on March 12.
This one also goes without saying. The Suns obviously want to avoid playing Kobe Bryant and the reigning champs in the first round, which they will unless they drop to the eighth spot.
But the West goes through the Lakers, and if the Suns want to make a championship run, these two teams are going to have to square off at some point. Luckily for the Suns, it most likely won’t be in the first round.