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Playoff musical chairs

Other than the Chicago Bulls, there is no hotter team in the NBA right now than the Phoenix Suns. Phoenix has won nine of its last 11 games and risen all the way to ninth in the standings – just a half game behind the Houston Rockets. The Suns have firmly entrenched themselves in what is shaping up to be a great race for the final playoff spots in the Western Conference. I, like all of you, am eager to know if Phoenix’s current renaissance will be enough to secure them a playoff berth, so I looked into the ValleyoftheSuns crystal ball to find the answer. When that didn’t work, I turned to my old friend math. Here’s everything that went into the calculations.

Dallas Mavericks

Current Position: 6th

Record in Last 10: 5-5

Games Remaining (Home, Away): 20 (8, 12)

Back-to-Backs Remaining: 6

Remaining Opponents Win %: .560

Denver Nuggets

Current Position: 7th

Record in Last 10: 7-3

Games Remaining (Home, Away): 21 (8, 13)

Back-to-Backs: 4

Remaining Opponents Win %: .502

Houston Rockets

Current Position: 8th

Record in Last 10: 3-7

Games Remaining (Home, Away): 20 (11, 9)

Back-to-Backs: 5

Remaining Opponents Win %: .515

Phoenix Suns

Current Position: 9th

Record in Last 10: 8-2

Games Remaining (Home, Away): 21 (8, 13)

Back-to-Backs: 5

Remaining Opponents Win %: .548

Utah Jazz

Current Position: 10th

Record in Last 10: 6-4

Games Remaining (Home, Away): 21 (10, 11)

Back-to-Backs: 5

Remaining Opponents Win %: .514

Minnesota Timberwolves

Current Position: 11th

Record in Last 10: 4-6

Games Remaining (Home, Away): 20 (9, 11)

Back-to-Backs: 4

Remaining Opponents Win %: .505

Portland Trail Blazers

Current Position: 12th

Record in Last 10: 3-7

Games Remaining (Home, Away): 21 (12, 9)

Back-to-Backs: 5

Remaining Opponents Win %: .508

Golden State Warriors

Current Position: 13th

Record in Last 10: 4-6

Games Remaining (Home, Away): 24 (11, 13)

Back-to-Backs: 5

Remaining Opponents Win %: .499

I threw all these numbers into a pot, stirred them around, added salt for flavor, stirred a bit more, and had them blessed by the Phoenix Suns’ Gorilla just before serving. Here are my predictions:

Denver Nuggets

Projected Position: 6th

Projected Record: 37-29

Dallas Mavericks

Projected Position: 7th

Projected Record: 36-30

Phoenix Suns

Projected Position: 8th

Projected Record: 34-32

Utah Jazz

Projected Position: 9th

Projected Record: 34-32

Houston Rockets

Projected Position: 10th

Projected Record: 33-33

Minnesota Timberwolves

Projected Position: 11th

Projected Record: 31-35

Portland Trail Blazers

Projected Position: 12th

Projected Record: 31-35

Golden State Warriors

Projected Position: 13th

Projected Record: 29-37

This whole column boils down to a three-team race for eighth place. By my calculations, Denver and Dallas will hold onto the sixth and seventh seeds (although they will most likely swap their current spots by season’s end because of Dallas’ incredibly tough closing schedule.) On the bottom end of things, Minnesota, Portland, and Golden State will not be able to mount a serious charge for the eighth seed. Minnesota is not the same team without Ricky Rubio. Golden State will need time to acclimate to its new roster and has a draft incentive to finish in the bottom seven teams in the league. Portland fired its coach and traded away two key players from its front court. That leaves Phoenix, Utah, and Houston to battle it out for a single postseason berth.

The Case for Phoenix

The Suns have three main advantages in this race. First, as I mentioned above, the Suns are the hottest team in the West. They have a ton of momentum and are playing with a confidence they haven’t had all season. They are getting contributions from every spot on the roster including, Michael Redd’s 25-point performance last night. Their second advantage is their record in back-to-backs. Phoenix is one of the few Western Conference teams with a winning record in the second game of back-to-backs. This will aid the Suns greatly as they have five such games left on their schedule. Third is their road record. The Suns are 8-12 on the road this year, which isn’t great by any means, but is much better than Utah and Houston, both of whom have already lost 16 games on the road this year.

The Case Against Phoenix

Despite the Suns’ superior road record, the fact that they play 13 of their last 21 on the road cannot be overlooked. Utah has only 11 games left to play away from home, and Houston has only nine. The other obstacle facing the Suns is the quality of competition they’ll face. The Suns’ remaining opponents have a winning % of .548, which is second only to Dallas in strength of schedule. Houston and Utah’s SOS’s are both more than 30 points lower. The Suns have a tough road trip coming up in which they will play Miami, Orlando, and Indiana over the span of four days before finishing their Eastern swing at Cleveland. This trip could either solidify or shatter the Suns’ playoff hopes.

In the end, which team grabs the eighth and final spot will probably come down to two things: head-to-head matchups and Houston’s health. The Rockets’ starting point guard Kyle Lowry has missed the last six games with a bacterial infection. Leading scorer Kevin Martin has missed the last four games with a strained shoulder. Houston’s bench has played valiantly in their absence, and the team has split the six games that Lowry has been out. Houston is still 3-7 in its last 10 games, though. If their starting backcourt doesn’t return soon, their current slide could put them on the outside looking in for the playoffs.

The Suns have one more game against the Rockets and two more with the Jazz this year. Unfortunately, all three games are on the road. The Suns have already beaten Utah once this season, so a win in either remaining game will give the tiebreaker to Phoenix. The Suns are 1-2 against the Rockets thus far this year with the lone victory coming last night. Winning the final matchup is a must to draw the season series with Houston even. There is a good chance the Rockets and Suns will end up with the same final record, and it would be an incredible shame, for Steve Nash and the rest of the team, if the fate of the season came down to a tiebreaker.

The Suns will likely need 12 or 13 wins from their final 21 games to make the playoffs. It’s doable, but it won’t be easy. My prediction: Steve Nash adds to his career achievement list and leads the Suns to an altogether unexpected playoff berth. ESPN’s Marc Stein agrees. John Hollinger does not.

Tags: Dallas Mavericks Denver Nuggets Golden State Warriors Houston Rockets Minnesota Timberwolves Phoenix Suns Phoenix Suns Analysis Playoffs Portland Trailblazers Utah Jazz

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