As the NBA readies for its return in Orlando on July 31, 12 of the 22 teams headed there have already clinched playoff spots. The remaining 10 will battle it out to see which teams advance to the postseason.
Teams will play eight games apiece to finish the regular season. If the No. 9 seed in either conference remains within four games of the No. 8 seed, there will be a play-in tournament. The No. 9 seed will have to beat the No. 8 seed twice in order to advance. The eighth seed would have to beat the ninth seed just once to move on.
As it stands in the Eastern Conference, No. 9 Washington trails No. 8 Orlando by 5.5 games and No. 7 Brooklyn by six games. The Wizards do have Bradley Beal who in the five games before the COVID-19 shutdown averaged 32.4 points a game.
The problem for Washington is winning consecutive games. They did so only four times this season and they never won more than two in a row. One of the big reasons why is defense. The Wizards rank dead last in the NBA in defensive rating.
In the Western Conference, the race is much more interesting. Portland, New Orleans, and Sacramento are each within 3.5 games of No. 8 Memphis. San Antonio (4.0 games behind) and Phoenix (6.0) still have a shot, but it’s highly unlikely. The Spurs recently announced LaMarcus Aldridge will miss the rest of the season.
Memphis has the inside track on the eighth seed. Point guard Ja Morant is a Rookie of the Year candidate and has proven he can play in big games. The problem for Memphis is they went a combined 2-5 against Portland, New Orleans, and Sacramento. They also do not have a lot of playoff experience.
If one of Portland, New Orleans, or Sacramento has a shot of overtaking the Grizzlies, it is Portland. The Trail Blazers have the backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum and will likely add Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic to the frontcourt. Collins hasn’t played since Week 1 of the season and Nurkic hasn’t played at all because of a severe leg injury.
With Collins and Nurkic back plus Portland’s playoff experience – they made the Western Conference finals last season – the Trail Blazers have the best shot of beating out Memphis for the No. 8 seed. Plus, Portland owns the tiebreaker over New Orleans and Sacramento.