With only a couple games left in the regular season the Memphis Grizzlies and the Phoenix Suns are battling for the last playoff spot. This was supposed to run sooner, but some issues came up and the Dallas Mavericks have clinched at least the seventh seed in the Western Conference.
Since Tim was kind enough to help drive this project I felt it was fair to leave his answers.
What is the biggest thing that can trip up your team from qualifying for the post season?
Tim Cato (Mavs Money Ball): Thanks for coordinating this. This should be a very fun race to the finish. You may not have seen this Kevin, but these three teams actually finish the season against each other -- Phoenix @ Dallas on April 12, Memphis @ Phoenix April 14, Dallas @ Memphis April 16. So that's going to a huge factor on what ends up happening. Might be good to add to the set up.
And I'm going to leave major injuries out of the equation on that question. Obviously, I'm sure that would trip any of those three teams up. Anyhow, my answer:
The Mavericks have a brutal eight-game April -- five games on the road, and five against playoff teams. As has been the case in Dallas for half a decade now, the Mavericks are an old team. Dirk and Shawn Marion are 35-year-olds playing about 32 minutes a night. Vince Carter is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, but also 37. Monta Ellis, God bless him, is on pace for a second straight season of playing 82 games and more than 3,000 minutes.
Head coach Rick Carlisle has done his best at managing the minutes, but it's tough to rest players in a game when his team is constantly blowing double-digit leads (seriously, it's a epidemic that's been happening to them all season). Between the grind of the season and the inevitable decline of the human body in its late 30's, the Mavericks could simply hit a wall when faced with their unrelenting end-of-the-year schedule and fall out of the playoff picture.
Dave King (Bright Side of the Sun): While the Mavs have a tough schedule as Tim notes, the Suns' schedule is slightly tougher. After laying an egg in Lakerland on Monday, the Suns have 6 of their 8 remaining games against winning teams (vs. the Mavs' 5) and 5 of 8 on the road. Those late games against Memphis and Dallas loom really large. In the Suns' favor is that they are healthy and have gone 19-6 in games where Dragic and Bledsoe both started and finished healthy this season.
The Suns have no chance of winning a tiebreak against the Grizzlies since the Griz are up 3-0 in the season series as a major matchup problem the Suns can't solve. That 3-0 deficit is so big that if the season ended on a three-way tie for two playoff spots, it's almost certain the Suns would lose out no matter what happens in those Suns/Mav/Griz games.
The one saving grace is that the Suns finish their season last of the three teams (by 2 hours) against the Kings, while the Mavs and Griz face off against each other to close their seasons. It could very well be that the Suns/Kings game is a "play in" game.
Chris Faulkner (Grizzlie Bear Blues): The biggest thing that can trip up the Grizzlies heading into this stretch is probably Coach Dave Joerger's lineup rotations after the first 10 minutes of the game. Joerger has obviously had some tough breaks to work around this season, but he tends to "freeze up" when teams go in big runs late in game against the Grizzlies. His penchant for trusting veteran players could get the Grizzlies in trouble if they struggle to find consistent offense (which they will) or fail to make their trademark bunch-o-consecutive-defensive stops to finish out games.
The Grizzlies want to do everything they can to get at least the 7th seed and avoid facing the Spurs in the first round. As far as picking between the Thunder or Clippers goes, I feel most comfortable going up against OKC as the 7th seed. The Clippers aren't the same team the Griz stomped in the playoffs last year and I think Memphis can find ways to neutralize Kevin Durant enough for a road win in Loud City. Assuming Memphis makes the playoffs, Grizzlies fans at least have the benefit and confidence of knowing that this Memphis team has beaten all of these teams at least once in the playoffs the past three years.
What would be the ideal seed and the ideal match-up for your teams?
Dave: Suns fans aren't even looking at matchups at this point. It's like bad juju to look ahead. But if you put me on the spot, I'd like nothing better than to play the San Antonio Spurs in the first round. The Suns have such a history against the Spurs that it would be only fitting to return to the playoff stage in such a manner.
Sure, only Channing Frye and Goran Dragic were on that 2010 playoff team that swept the Spurs, but that was when Dragic first hit the national stage with that inspired performance in the fourth quarter of game three to help the Suns take that 3-0 lead.
"I think it's safe to say that may have been the best fourth-quarter performance I have ever seen in a playoff game," Suns forward Grant Hill said afterward.
But the best quote of all came from the Spurs locker room.
"It was demoralizing," Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said about avoiding the sweep. "We're going to have to have a perfect game."
Tim: I don't think anyone is confusing this 2014 Mavericks squad with the one of 2011 championship one. Glaring weaknesses, inconsistent play and age will prevent this team from advancing out of the first round no matter who they draw, because the top four seeds of the West are brutal.
I've seen different Maverick fans choose Oklahoma City, Los Angeles and Houston over the last week or two as being the best chance for an upset. I would personally lean towards Houston on the chance that the Mavericks got locked into a groove and outgunned the Rockets enough times to win, but playing them is the least likely for any of the scenarios.
One thing is for certain: facing the Spurs would be a violent massacre. With an upset unlikely, Dallas fans really should just hope -- if they make the playoffs -- that they don't have to face the San Antonio buzzsaw.
Chris: The best matchup for the Grizzlies in the first round, at least of the remaining possibilities, would easily be Oklahoma City. The Spurs have just had Memphis' number ever since that 2011 first round upset, and although the Grizzlies attempted to balance the roster with outside shooting to stay with the Spurs - it just hasn't happened yet this season. A series with the Thunder gives the Grizzlies a familiar opponent who they've been able to hang with for years now. Kevin Durant doesn't scare the Grizzlies because of their ability to usually take away all the other scoring options. OKC at least gives Memphis a healthy chance of advancing while another series with the Spurs would require the aligning of planets and subsequent supernatural intervention for the Grizzlies to advance this year.
What's the thing your team needs to improve over the last two weeks to make the playoffs and score a first round upset?
Chris: The Grizzlies having a glaring need to shore up their free throw shooting, slipping to 71% as a team in the month of March. Memphis doesn't leave a lot of room for error with the type of pace and game they play so maximizing "free" points to close out games or surmount comebacks will be key, and it's something that this team has typically been very good at in the past. This will be extremely critical if they end up playing the Spurs in the first round. Of course, if that's the case the Grizzlies will need to be shooting season-highs in just about every category to accomplish that upset.
Tim: If the Mavericks could play even league-average defense, their deadly offense can carry them. But getting a group of players led by Dirk, Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon to simply stick in front of their man is probably more difficult than it looks.
Is it possible with Golden State's dysfunction that all three of your teams make the playoffs?
Chris: The Grizzlies are still struggling to get back to the level of play they had going a couple of weeks ago. Their next two games are against the Spurs and the Heat; maybe the Griz were waiting for this final push to really turn it on - they have a history of playing up or down to the competition.
If the Grizzlies miss the playoffs they'll be kicking themselves all summer at the thought of giving up a 7 pt lead with 4 minutes left in Golden State last week, a disappointing stumble that has seemingly gotten in their heads.
Dave: nah. The rest of GS's schedule is a cake walk. Home games against Utah, Denver and (suddenly tanking) Minny, roadies against the Lakers, Blazers and Denver. They will probably go 5-1 if not 6-0.
Tim: With a few more games left in the season, I would feel that a Golden State collapse was more likely. As it is, I just don't see them dropping out with such a huge lead. Certainly, the Mavericks' inability to close the game against them last week was a huge swing in their favor and the missed goaltending will be discussed in length if Dallas does out of the playoff running by a game.
Give me one reason that will convince me and the rest of the NBA loving public that your team will make the playoffs.
Chris: Memphis has been in this scenario before and they're very accustomed to summoning a scrappy final push, Grit'n'Grind as they call it. They know they're playoff lives are on the line now. Playing Miami this Wednesday night should help bring out the best of the Grizzlies, as it typically does, just as playing the Spurs on Sunday night brought out the worst of them. Mike Conley is finally beginning to hit stride again, scoring 18+ pts in 9 of their last 12 games. The Grizzlies typically go as far as Conley takes them, and his ability to reach for that extra gear bodes well for the Grizzlies to finish out on a winning streak and secure that final spot.
Dave: I gotta leave it to what Blazers' Edge and national writer Ben Golliver wrote in his game recap after the Suns pasted the Trailblazers last Friday, and won the season series 3-1.
"You wouldn't want to face the Suns in Scrabble, Parcheesi, Monopoly, Hearts, seven-card stud and definitely not Risk. Can you imagine how quickly Eric Bledsoe would conquer Australia? Would you really want to endlessly tussle with the Morris Twins for control of the Middle East?"
For Suns fans, this is the best possible description of our team and how proud we are of a set of guys not picked to win more than 21 games (as low as 16 in some places, even). The team plays their butts off every single game.The season has been a magical one that seems destined to end in a playoff berth where the rest of the country can see how easy it is to love the Suns.
Tim: Because Dirk won't let them miss it.
He did his best last year. After missing 27 games and returning to a Mavericks team that was floundering, he carried them to the finish line and a .500 record, just missing the playoffs. This year, the 35-year-old has been a machine. He's not able to get to the basket much at all anymore, but adapting his game to turn into the most lethal spot-up shooting the league has allowed him to still score 21 a game.
Dirk has said this season's goal was to get back to the playoffs. With the Mavericks this close, he won't be denied.
Thanks, guys! If it is any solace to the Memphis or Phoenix fan base, you'd be the third seed in the Eastern Conference.