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Earning a Play-In spot in the Western Conference won't be easy

Earning a Play-In spot in the Western Conference won't be easy

Let’s go ahead and put Denver and Sacramento into the Western Conference playoffs. It’s hard to imagine Memphis and Phoenix falling out of the mix, even with Ja Morant away from the Grizzlies and Kevin Durant still not able to make his home debut for the Suns because of ankle trouble. Put them on the bracket as well.

And from there, it’s anyone’s guess.

The West is an absolute mess, and the middle of the pack — the race for the last two guaranteed playoff spots and the four berths into the play-in tournament — is as muddled and murky as possible.

“Hope,” Utah coach Will Hardy said, “is a good motivator.”

True. There’s plenty of hope still out there, too.

The West has, more often than not in recent years, been the power-broker side of the NBA. Not this year. The shinier records are at the top of the Eastern Conference, which is on pace to finish with three of the best four records this season — something that hasn’t happened since 2008-09.

The West has become a logjam this year, and the standings change almost nightly. A single win or loss can change everything: Utah was ninth in the West entering Monday, and a four-point loss at Miami left the Jazz tumbling three spots to 12th. The Los Angeles Lakers, meanwhile, went from 11th to ninth — from out of the play-in to back in — without even playing.

Defending champion Golden State beat Phoenix and went from sixth to fifth. After the Warriors, it’s the Los Angeles Clippers in sixth, Minnesota seventh, Dallas eighth, the Lakers ninth, New Orleans 10th, Oklahoma City 11th and the Jazz 12th.

Put another way, 2.5 games separated the fifth-place Warriors from the 11th-place Thunder. Only 4.5 games separated the Warriors from the 13th-place Portland Trail Blazers. It’s hard to envision a scenario, given how tight the standings are right now, where at least some West races for seeding don’t go down to the final day.

“No one’s really out of it right now, at this point in the Western Conference,” Hardy said. “There’s a couple teams that have fallen, I guess, out of the race, but 5 through 13 are so tight that every team is competing each night with that hope of like, ‘Hey, if you string a few together, you can really vault in the standings.’ We’d all be lying if we say we don’t check the standings. We definitely do, but it can be a little distracting.”

This is exactly what the NBA wanted when it added the play-in tournament — intrigue all the way to the end of the season. Only the top six teams in each conference are guaranteed playoff spots when the regular season ends on April 9; the next four from the East and West go to a play-in tournament to decide the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds on the respective brackets.

Only three teams — Houston, San Antonio and Detroit — have been eliminated. Charlotte isn’t too far away from joining that trio. Everyone else still has a legitimate chance, at least at the play-in.

“You do have to embrace the competition,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “When you’re dreaming about things in the middle of the summer, this is what you want. You want games with incredible pressure and context. You don’t want games to have no meaning, to play for lottery balls. You want to have this kind of context. And you want to see what this competition can bring out of you.”

Teams will find out, whether they want to know or not.

There are no fewer than 24 matchups the rest of the way that will pit those teams vying for spots 5 through 8 on the West bracket against one another, meaning those nights could lead to a big swing in the standings.

It also might come down to which teams get somebody back in time to help the cause.

The Lakers may get LeBron James back at some point. The Warriors aren’t sure when Andrew Wiggins — out for personal reasons — could return, or if he will. The Mavericks are dealing with Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving both having injuries. The Timberwolves hope Karl-Anthony Towns is close to a return from a calf injury. The Pelicans have remained in the race despite not having Zion Williamson, which they’re probably used to by now.

Buckle up. Denver might not get caught atop the West. The trio of Milwaukee, Boston and Philadelphia will finish 1-2-3 in the East in some order. But everything else is pretty much up for grabs, especially in the super-cluttered West.

“It’s funny what a couple of wins can do right now,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said.

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