The West Side story: Suns top seed, much to decide

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Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul waves to the crowd at the end of the team’s NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets, Thursday, March 24, 2022, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

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Defending NBA MVP Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets certainly thought a recent 14-of-18 winning streak would propel them up the Western Conference standings.

Or at least give them some breathing room in the post-season race.

Not the case.

What their 14-4 run has done is allow them to simply surf in place in sixth place – on the verge of tipping into the play-in scenario for teams that finish between seventh and 10th place of the conference.

“The depth in the Western Conference, I think, is incredible,” marveled Nuggets coach Michael Malone, whose team played without the injured Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. “The West is charged.”

The final two weeks of the regular season should provide entertaining theater as teams compete for playoff position. With, of course, the notable exception of the Phoenix Suns, who can sit and wait to see who they play after stitching up the top seed in the West.

Everyone has work to do.

In the east, there is very little settlement either. The top six teams are separated by just 4½ games, with Miami currently in the lead. The Heat have a big game against Boston on Wednesday night.

Every game is important for the Lakers.

The road may have gotten even bumpier for them after LeBron James injured his ankle. It could very well be limited in the future – or possibly even run out of time.

Obviously, the Lakers can’t afford it. Not with the Lakers dangerously close to dropping out of the play-in. The New Orleans Pelicans are in 9th place and the Lakers in 10th.

There was a glimpse of that possible game on Sunday as the Pelicans rallied from 23 points late in the second quarter to eliminate the Lakers 116-108. James made no secret of his feelings after losing a big lead in a game in which he twisted his left ankle.

“Excuse my language, but that’s how I feel,” James said after using profanity to describe his emotions. “It obviously looks like another wasted opportunity for me and our team.”

There’s no room for error for the Lakers with the San Antonio Spurs – winners of four straight games – just half a game from last place.

At the moment, the Los Angeles Clippers are in eighth position. Imagine if they were to pick up a combination of Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Norman Powell.

All of a sudden, they’re an even scarier eighth seed.

The current standings would pit the Clippers against the Timberwolves in a play-in scenario. But the Timberwolves could still catch the Nuggets for No. 6.

Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves remain two games behind the Nuggets and play Friday in Denver. Whoever lands the sixth seed will more than likely attract Steph Curry and the No. 3 seeded Golden State Warriors. Memphis comfortably takes second place.

“It’s really, really hard to come into the playoffs to predict a clear winner,” said Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault, whose team is knocked out of the playoffs but ends the season facing the Jazz, the Lakers and the Clippers. “It’s been a bear of a conference for a long time.”

That’s why being home can mean everything. This is precisely why the Dallas Mavericks’ 114-100 win over Utah on Sunday could prove so crucial.

The Mavericks edged the Jazz by one game in the hunt for the fourth and fifth seeds in the West and won part of the season series. The home team won all four matches.

“That’s what we wanted, but it’s a long way to go,” said Mavericks All-Star point guard Luka Doncic, whose team hosts the Lakers on Tuesday night in another big game. “We still have to keep our composure, focus on the next opponent and try to win every game.”

Because, as Dallas coach Jason Kidd warned, “It wasn’t a playoff game. Nobody’s up 1-0.”

The Suns locked up the No. 1 seed last week as point guard Chris Paul returned from a thumb injury that had sidelined him since the All-Star break. They’re switching to a playoff mentality to make another run to the NBA Finals, where they were a year ago before losing to Milwaukee.

“Our team understands that the regular season is the regular season,” Paul said. “It’s different in the playoffs.”

Although the Suns have been the favorites since taking the top spot in the West for good in mid-January, they aren’t favored in any postseason awards outside of Monty Williams for the coach. the year.

Devin Booker (plus-4,600) is behind Sixers big man Joel Embiid (minus-195), Jokic (plus-180) and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo (plus-1,000) in the MVP race, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. In the Defensive Player of the Year category, Phoenix’s Mikal Bridges (plus-390) trails Boston’s Marcus Smart (plus-170), while Miami’s Tyler Herro (minus-20,000) looks like a sixth-man lock of the year, with Phoenix Cameron Johnson (plus-13,000) well behind.

“We’ve done a good job of not caring what people say about us,” Booker said. “But they need some recognition.”

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AP sportswriters Arnie Stapleton, Schuyler Dixon and Brett Martel contributed to this report.

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