Less than 40 games to go, and the Phoenix Suns still have a strong lead for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
All season, the magic number has been 50 wins. No team in NBA history has won 50 games and failed to qualify for the playoffs. Under the current playoff rules - 8 teams per conference - no team winning at least 49 games has missed the postseason either.
Last year, the Phoenix Suns won 48 games but missed the playoffs by one win but, effectively, two games. Memphis won just 49 but had taken the season series so really the Suns would have had to win 50 games outright to qualify. Prior to that, only Golden State several years ago had as many as 48 games and missed the playoffs.
50 is the magic number.
But as the season wears on, its becoming more and more apparent that the 8th seed will need something less than 50 wins to make it to the big dance.
Here is the latest 50-win watch:
As you can see, it's quite unlikely for any of these teams to reach the 50-win mark. Of the three, the most likely team would be the Suns, who have won 15 of their last 21 games since inserting Alex Len in the starting lineup and deciding to play the Trips together on a regular basis.
According to the popular playoff odds sites, the Suns have the best chance to make the post season. Both ESPN and Basketball-reference give the Suns twice the odds of OKC or the Pelicans, but just above 50% chance overall.
Many say that the Thunder are being undervalued, given the early season injuries, but the Thunder are also just 6-6 in their last 12 games. Not exactly that vaunted 70% win rate that Durant/Westbrook enjoyed last season when they played together. And even then, a 70% win rate from now on just gets the Thunder to 48 wins or so. Is that enough? Maybe. But let's see the Thunder start playing at that pace before anointing them.
On the plus side, the Suns haven't lost to a lesser team since mid-December, while the Thunder just lost to the Knicks last night and the Pelicans lost to the Nuggets.
The Suns problem is that they still haven't shown an ability to beat the top teams in the West on a regular basis (4-3 at home vs. 1-7 on the road) and still have 18 games against those teams the rest of the way, leaving only 17 games against the rest of the league.
But the Suns problems are lesser than OKC's or the Pellies' unless the Suns fall off the face of the cliff in the second half. The only way either OKC or NOLA makes the postseason is if the Suns stumble, because the Suns are 3 wins up on the Pelicans and 4 wins up on OKC.
The Pelicans have 15 remaining games against the West's best, including two against the Suns. The Thunder have 17 of their own. The Pellies and Thunder have a home-and-home against each other this coming week. But worse news for these teams is on the injury front. Kevin Durant (big toe) sat out the last two games for the Thunder, and Anthony Davis is getting an MRI for a groin injury after a nasty fall the other night.
The Suns just need to keep winning games, wherever they can and maybe, just maybe the race for 8th won't be as nail-biting as recent blown leads at home.
But then again, this IS the Suns. They wouldn't be doing it right if they didn't give up the lead on 8th in the final couple weeks only to close it out (or not) in the final game or two.
The Suns will not have a very large contingent at the upcoming All-Star game in New York and one of their possible representatives was unable to make the cut with starting center Alex Len being left off the Rising Stars World roster.
Alex Len will get some extra rest over the upcoming All-Star break.
The Suns 21 year old starting center didn't get the nod for the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge World team, which is voted on by the NBA's assistant coaches.
Alex suffered through an injury plagued rookie season, but has been healthy as a sophomore and is really blossoming as the season progresses. In his 22 games as a starter he is averaging 7.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks a game. His presence in the paint on the defensive end has been a key element in the team's 15-7 record since he took over starting duties from Miles Plumlee.
Still, it's hard to argue that this is a snub. Each team, U.S. vs World, consists of four frontcourt, four backcourt and two wildcard players. It's not difficult to make a case that Gorgui Dieng, Rudy Gobert, Steven Adams, Kelly Olynyk and Nikola Mirotic are playing at least as well as Len this season.
Len's recent performance hasn't buoyed his statistics to the point where he compares favorably with his peers. He is averaging less points than any of these players and is not leading in any category. The 21 year old Len is the second youngest of this group (Steven Adams) so hopefully he can concede this small victory and win the much bigger battle of becoming the best player over the course of his career.
The Suns have also been shut out of the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest and Foot Locker Three-Point Contest, so their last chance will be a nod in the Taco Bell Skills Challenge. Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe (and maybe Isaiah Thomas?) might be considered for that competition.
I guess the Suns' last chance for representation is riding on a chalupa.
Here's what the players had to say after another quality win last night.
The Suns snapped a two-game losing streak last night against the Washington Wizards, and have improved to 5-2 on their eight game home stand. This win guaranteed they would end their home stay with an winning record, regardless of the outcome of Friday's game against the Chicago Bulls.
This is no small feat, as the Suns have played some of the toughest teams in the Western and Eastern Conference during this span. In fact, every single team they played against is currently slotted to be a playoff team.
But back to this game. It was essentially a tale of two halves...with the Suns owning the first half, and the Wizards getting the better of the second.
Of course, that only tells part of the story. The Suns built up a lead that was 22 points at it's largest, and ended the first half up 17. The Wizards outscored the Suns by three in the third quarter, bringing the Suns lead down to 14, and then outscored Phoenix again in the fourth quarter by six, bringing the final deficit to eight at the end of the game.
While the Suns weren't able to build upon the lead they built in the first half, they were careful not to completely lose it all either...though things did get tense a couple of times in the fourth quarter when they cut the lead to just four, on two separate occasions.
But still, the Suns played well enough to win against a team that was 31-15 heading into tonight...in the end, that's all that mattered.
Here's what the players had to say about the win after the game (Thanks for editing the videos Evan!)
Eric talked about the advantage of playing the Wizards on a back-to-back, and how the Suns were able to capitalize on it...at least in the first half. He also mentioned trying to win as many games heading into the All-Star break to hopefully give themselves a bit of a cushion over the Oklahoma City Thunder and the New Orleans Pelicans who aren't far behind.
Not surprisingly, PJ talked about hustling and grabbing big rebounds at the end of the game. And once again, P.J. was huge down the stretch...grabbing 6 rebounds in the last 6 minutes of the game. He walks the talk, and definitely leads by example. Another gritty game from Tucker where he registered a double-double...scoring 12 points, and leading the team in rebounds with 10.
Goran talked about how building big leads only to lose them has been a common theme this season, but he was also happy they came out with the win in the end. He also talked about the importance of getting these big wins against very good teams at home. To be 5-2 through these first seven games is impressive, no doubt about it...but they aren't done yet.
The Suns play the Chicago Bulls next up on Friday, in what is sure to be another very tough game. Fortunately for Phoenix, they will have a day of rest in between, whereas the Bulls will be playing a back-to-back on the road, since they are playing the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday night.
Hopefully, the Suns can once again use their energy as an advantage to jump out to another early lead...and hopefully sustain it as well.