The Orlando bubble is unlike just about anything we’ve seen in league history. But its unique circumstances have created opportunities for the NBA to experiment with unconventional ideas, similar to how the G-League acts as a testing ground for rule changes and other innovations that the league itself might adopt in the future.
One of the biggest novelties of the bubble, is its play-in format, as fringe playoff teams are currently being forced to battle it out for a postseason berth. The Wizards quickly rendered that a moot point in the East after losing six straight games in Orlando, but the situation in the West has remained loaded with intrigue right up to the finish line.
The Grizzlies entered the bubble with a comfortable cushion in the No. 8 seed, but multiple losses, a healthy Blazers squad, and a streaking Suns team have all threatened to upend their playoff hopes. Heading into Tuesday’s slate, we laid out all the different scenarios for how each team could earn their spot in Saturday’s play-in game.
The three teams that had to win took care of business and kept their playoff hopes alive, with only the Grizzlies losing, dropping to a tie for ninth with Phoenix and San Antonio in the process and adding all sorts of drama to Thursday’s action. The standings currently look like this — with Memphis holding the tiebreaker over both Phoenix and San Antonio, and the Suns holding the tiebreaker with the Spurs.
9. Memphis (0.5 back)
10. Phoenix (0.5 back)
11. San Antonio (0.5 back)
As you can see, it’s still very much up for grabs, and all four are in action on Thursday. Here’s what’s at stake in each of those four matchups, with a brief primer for what each team needs to accomplish to secure a chance in the play-in game and a shot at the postseason.
Blazers-Nets (9 p.m. ET)
Since his tiff with Paul George, Pat Beverley, et. al, Damian Lillard has been a man possessed. He’s scored 111 points in the past two games — both wins — and put the Blazers firmly in control of their own destiny. If they win this game, they’ll secure the No. 8 seed, meaning they’ll only need to win one play-in game to make the playoffs.
If the Blazers lose, and any two of the Grizzlies, Spurs, or Suns also lose, they’ll get the No. 9 seed, meaning they’ll have to win two play-in games to make the playoffs. If Portland loses and any two of those other teams win on Thursday, they’ll be eliminated. Should they lose and all three other teams lose, then they hold onto eighth. On the other end, the East playoff picture is set, and the Nets are locked into the No. 7 seed, so they have nothing at stake in this game.
Depending on which pundit you ask, the Blazers are one of the biggest sleeper threats if they make it into the postseason, and after last weekend’s high-profile run-in with the Clippers, Dame is as motivated as ever. However, a postseason showdown with the Los Angeles Lakers would likely require a repeat of last season’s Cinderella run to the West Finals, a tall order for a team that is scrambling to qualify for the postseason but is certainly finding its rhythm with health now on their side.
Spurs-Jazz (6:30 p.m. ET)
The Spurs have to win, we know that. But there’s still a path to the postseason, however dwindling the odds. San Antonio can sneak into the No. 9 seed if they win and any two of the Suns, Blazers, and Grizzlies lose. The No. 8 seed is even more of a long shot, requiring both a win on their part, and losses by all three of the other teams. Crazier things have happened.
But it isn’t just a playoff berth that’s at stake for the Spurs. San Antonio has made the postseason for 22 straight years, which is both an NBA record and the longest active playoff streak in any of the major North American sports. For the Jazz, it no longer matters as they face Denver in the first round next week. After OKC beat the Heat on Wednesday — subsequently ensuring a showdown with the Rockets — and the Clippers beat Denver, the West standings above eight were set in stone.
Suns-Mavs (4 p.m. ET)
The Suns have been the feelgood story of Orlando, so far, and Devin Booker has led the charge with his phenomenal play. They moved to 7-0 in the bubble with a win against Philly to keep their playoff hopes alive, behind 35 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists from Book. If that wasn’t enough to win your hearts, the organization surprised the team before the game with adorable video introductions from their family members.
But as good as they’ve been, their path to the postseason is anything but clear. A loss on Thursday means they’re out. But if they win, and the Blazers and Grizzlies both lose, they can land the No. 8 spot. A win by them and a loss by one of the Grizzlies or Blazers would mean the No. 9 seed.
Grizzlies-Bucks (4 p.m. ET)
If you’re a Grizzlies fan, you can’t be too happy about how things have panned out in the bubble so far. They came into Orlando with a comfortable foothold on the No. 8 seed in the West, but have watched that evaporate as the losses (and injuries) quickly piled up during that brutal opening week, leading us to where we are now with the play-in series scramble for position.
Still, despite all of that, the Grizzlies control their destiny. Win and you’re in, but seeding matters a lot. Memphis can still snag the No. 8 spot, but it will take a win combined with a Blazers loss. They’ll end up in ninth if they and Portland both win, no matter what the Suns and Spurs do. They’ll be eliminated if they lose and either of the Suns or Spurs win.
For the Grizz and presumptive Rookie of the Year Ja Morant, this was supposed to be something of a coming out party, the first of many playoff appearances to come for one of the league’s up-and-coming darlings. But with the way they’ve stumbled out of the gate, combined with a devastating knee injury to Jaren Jackson Jr., they’ll be fortunate to get in at all and would likely be first-round fodder for the Lakers anyway.
The Bucks, for their part, don’t have anything to lose here. They’re locked into the No. 1 seed in the East and could potentially choose to dial this one in and avoid risking injury to their star players. They’ll also be without Giannis, after his headbutt on Moe Wagner earned him a one-game suspension, which is at least a minor blessing for a Memphis team that could desperately use a good break in Orlando.