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Breaking down the race to the NBA play-in round

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The Blazers, Suns, Spurs and Grizzlies are still battling for two spots in the play-in round, with the winner of that going on to face the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.

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Portland Trail Blazers v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

The Lakers are taking on the Sacramento Kings on Thursday in a game that is completely and truly meaningless, given that the former team has locked up the top seed in the Western Conference, and the latter have been eliminated from playoff contention. But while that may mean that the Lakers’ own place in the playoff bracket is secure and that they should just be looking to get out of tomorrow’s game healthy, that does not mean their first opponent is locked in yet, not by a long shot.

This season, for the first time, the NBA is having an official play-in round for the final playoff spot, made possible by the ninth seed being within four games of the eighth seed. If the eighth seed wins the first game between the two teams, they move on to face the Lakers in the first round and the play-in is over. But if the ninth seed wins, then another game is played between the two, with the winner of that one moving on to play against the purple and gold.

The play-in scenario is already guaranteed to happen, as none of the contenders for eighth place can gain enough of a lead on the other three teams to avoid it entirely. As a result, the Lakers have their assistant coaching staff divided up, with a coach or two each taking one of the four remaining teams: The Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs, Phoenix Suns and Memphis Grizzlies.

“Obviously that’ll be dwindled down on Thursday to two opponents,” said Lakers head coach Frank Vogel after the Lakers’ practice on Wednesday. “We’ll spend equal time on both.”

Thursday is the final day for each of those teams to get into the play-in round, and the scenarios are somewhat complicated. So let’s break down the various contingencies for what can happen for each team in their final games on Thursday to get a sense of who the Lakers are likely to face.

Portland Trail Blazers v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Kim Klement - Pool/Getty Images

Trail Blazers

When do they play their final game, and who are they playing against?

The Blazers — widely viewed as the biggest threat to the Lakers among these four teams (sorry, still-somehow-undefeated Bubble Suns) and currently in eighth place in the Western Conference — are in the driver’s seat heading into today. Not only do they have the best record (34-49) right now as part of their aforementioned advantages, but they’re also playing one of the weakest opponents of the day in the Brooklyn Nets.

The Nets have been surprisingly competitive in the bubble, but with little to play for against a Portland team that is a) better and b) playing for their playoff lives, they would appear to have little shot here. Making this potentially a little more climactic, then, is that this is the last game of the day, being broadcast on TNT at 6:00 p.m. PT.

What do they need to happen to get the eighth seed?

For the Blazers, the answer to this question is pretty easy: Just win. If they beat the Nets, the Blazers are guaranteed to enter the play-in round as the eighth seed, meaning they’d only have to win one more game to make the playoffs. Failing that, if all three of their competitors (the Suns, Spurs and Grizzlies) lose, they will remain in eighth place regardless.

What do they need to happen to get the ninth seed?

The Blazers still have enough cushion to almost assuredly make the play-in games, even with a loss. All they’d need in that case is for two of the other members of the Final Seed Four to lose their games.

What would eliminate them?

As you may have guessed from reading the scenarios above, the Lakers would avoid any chance of seeing the Blazers in the first round entirely if Portland loses to Brooklyn, and any two of the Grizzlies, Spurs and Suns win their games on Thursday.

Boston Celtics v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Grizzlies

When do they play their final game, and who are they playing against?

The Grizzlies entered the bubble with a significant lead for the eighth and final playoff spot, but after going 1-6 in Orlando so far and dropping to ninth in the Western Conference, they are going to need a little bit of help just to make the play-in round. The NBA may have provided exactly that type of aid, however, in the form of suspending Giannis Antetokounmpo one game for headbutting former Laker and current Wizard Moe Wagner, meaning that the Bucks (who don’t have anything to play for, anyway) will be missing their best player and the presumptive MVP.

Will that be enough to save the Grizzlies from themselves? We’ll find out when these two teams face off at 1 p.m. PT on NBA League Pass, the only one of these four games that won’t be nationally televised.

What do they need to happen to get the eighth seed?

For the Grizzlies (33-39) to end up where they were to start this whole thing, they’ll need to beat the Bucks and have the Blazers lose to the Nets.

What do they need to happen to get the ninth seed?

The Grizzlies do still have a cushion here. If they lose, they just need the Suns and Spurs to lose as well, and they’ll still get into the play-in round as the ninth seed. They will also guarantee at least the ninth seed if they win.

What would eliminate them?

If the Grizzlies lose and either the Suns or Spurs win, Memphis will be going fishing.

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Suns

When do they play their final game, and who are they playing against?

Phoenix has been THE story of the bubble, going 7-0 at Disney World so far behind the incredible play of All-Star Devin Booker and other blossoming young players, and if they can finish running the table, they’ll have a decent shot to make the play-in round, even if they still need a bit of help from the two teams above.

But to have any shot of making their first postseason appearance since they lost to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals 10 years ago, they’ll have to beat the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday. The two teams will tip off on TNT at 1:00 p.m.

What do they need to happen to get the eighth seed?

For the Suns to get up to the eighth spot, they need to win and have the Blazers and Grizzlies both lose.

What do they need to happen to get the ninth seed?

To get to the ninth spot in the conference, the Suns need to win and have either one of the two teams ahead of them lose.

What would eliminate them?

If the Suns lose, they’re out, no matter what. They would also be eliminated by the Grizzlies and Blazers both winning, even if the Suns finish up their bubble run 8-0. That’d be a tough break, but somehow a fitting one for a franchise that seems to specialize in narrowly missing the playoffs.

Houston Rockets v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images

Spurs

When do they play their final game, and who are they playing against?

The Spurs were left for dead in most pre-bubble prognostications, but they’ve instead surged in Orlando, going 5-2 so far in the bubble. They still need help from their opponents, but they could very well get in here.

To have any chance at the play-in round, though, the Spurs will have to beat the Utah Jazz on Thursday. Those two teams will tip at 3:30 p.m. PT on TNT.

What do they need to happen to get the eighth seed?

For the Spurs (32-28) to surpass all three teams ahead of them of them in the Western Conference standings, they need to beat the Jazz, and have all three of the teams above lose.

What do they need to happen to get the ninth seed?

The ninth seed offers a bit more hope, as the Spurs still need to beat Utah, but only need two of the three teams ahead of them to lose.

What would eliminate them?

If the Spurs lose to the Jazz, their 22-year playoff streak is officially over. It will also end even if they win, as long as two of the three teams ahead of them win as well.


Lakers fans may feel like they’re the only ones eagerly watching this race towards the seeding rounds, but they’re not. The team’s coaching staff is also paying close attention to these games, even if they’re not having as much fun as the rest of us are while observing the drama of the play-in format.

“I haven’t been focused on enjoying it or not, I’ve been focused on ‘if we play this team, these are the challenges,’” Vogel said. “That’s how I watch each of those opponents.”

Vogel said that so far during the seeding games, the Lakers have been sending the assistant coach charged with preparing for each team to their respective games in the bubble, because right now the league is only giving opposing coaching staffs one seat during the seeding rounds. Vogel said that if that changes for the play-in tournament, he may go to those games, but he hasn’t decided yet. Either way, he says that until those results are in and the Lakers find out who they’re going to play, he won’t feel like the team is in “playoff mode” yet.

“Playoff mode is ‘okay, this is the team we have to beat, and let’s be completely consumed with beating them,’” Vogel said. “Until you know that, you can’t fully be immersed in that.”

The Lakers won’t know the answer to that question by Thursday, but they will be a lot closer to it. At the very least, it will allow them to start to streamline their preparation process a bit.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.