The mastermind behind the NBA's schedule could hardly have been more prescient.
With more than 1,200 games to plan with considerations of balance, travel, arena availability, broadcast schedules and other complications aplenty, the final stages of the season have wound up a dream scenario: a down-to-the-wire dogfight for the West's final two playoff spots, in which three deadlocked teams will all play one another.
That would have been impossible to predict when the NBA schedule was finalized in August, though serendipity has made this improbable bout for playoff contention one of the most compelling stories in the league. At 44-31 are the Grizzlies -- reigning Western Conference finalists who have rebounded fully after a coaching change, major injuries and disappointing start. Matching that record are the Suns -- a team pegged for the lowest reaches of the lottery up until they took the NBA by storm. And tied with those two are the Mavericks -- a collection of veterans responsible for one of the most prolific and resilient offenses in the league.
It's entirely possible that one of those three teams could become the first in NBA history to miss the playoffs after winning 50 games. Such is the brutality of this year's Western Conference, where standard benchmarks of basketball excellence mean little with so many teams desperately clawing for postseason position. The real power is in the relative; all that matters now for Memphis, Phoenix and Dallas are their records as compared to one another and their qualifications in the league's system of layered tiebreakers. Here's a quick, visual breakdown of how that process works:
Should any of those three teams wind up with the same record, the most simple tiebreaker in play is the head-to-head record between them. Of those season series, two have already been decided: The Grizzlies' 3-0 advantage over the Suns and the Mavs' 3-0 edge against the Grizzlies can't be tilted at this point, which renders a preemptive verdict in a potential tiebreaker situation. Dallas and Phoenix, however, are locked at one game apiece with one to play.
That Mavs-Suns death match (set for April 12) might be the most important game left on the NBA schedule. Not only does Phoenix badly need some direct tiebreaker in this scenario, but a win over Dallas is also the only way to preserve hope in the case of a three-way standoff. If the Suns, Grizzlies and Mavs all finish with the same record -- a very real possibility given their identical records after Wednesday's games -- the tiebreaker would be winning percentage in games between the stalemated teams. That's where Phoenix's 1-4 record against Dallas and Memphis is haunting. With wins over both rivals and a Grizzlies loss to the Mavs, the Suns could leapfrog the Grizz into the second tiebreaker spot.
That, however, would require that Memphis fail to capitalize on its greatest remaining advantage: a schedule that's soft in all the right places. Here's a look at the remaining slates:
The Suns, who lost to the Clippers on Wednesday, will face five playoff-caliber teams in seven games. The Grizzlies, on the other hand, will meet only four such opponents under more favorable home/road splits. The Mavs are somewhere in the middle with the benefit of hosting the Suns and padding their record through games against the three worst teams in the West.
The margins are too tight to make any weighty prediction beyond guesswork. The omens of the schedule don't bode well for the upstart Suns, though. They've played valiantly, both with Eric Bledsoe and without. But their season could wind up decided by this rough closing stretch, in which even their easier games come against teams with some upset potential.
A few wild card considerations as we set off down the home stretch:
• All three teams have a matchup against the Spurs left. Might any catch the break of Gregg Popovich resting his top players? The Suns seem the most likely recipient of charity given that they play the Spurs the latest. It's worth noting, though, that a game against San Antonio's plucky second unit shouldn't be penciled in for a win.
• Regardless of Popovich's decision, Phoenix will meet Dallas the night after playing San Antonio. That's a big game to walk into with little time for rest or preparation, particularly when the Mavs' offense so expertly adapts to basic defensive coverage. • With little else to play for, Kings big man DeMarcus Cousins and Lakers guard Nick Young have made calls to their respective teams to be playoff spoilers. Sacramento and L.A. will have a combined four games in play to help decide the West's playoff picture. Do your worst, player haters.