Enter The Western Conference Anxiety Vortex

If you missed the Phoenix Suns’ critical matchup with the Clippers on Tuesday night, don’t worry, so did the Suns. Phoenix had everything to play for, and fans who showed up for Fan Appreciation Night at the final home game of the regular season probably expected a performance worthy of the six seed, or at least the bare minimum of a basketball game, but they got neither of those. Despite playing without Kawhi Leonard and James Harden, the Clippers annihilated the Suns, racing out to a 35-4 first quarter lead, taking a satisfying 66-33 lead into halftime, then falling backwards throughout the second half and still winning by 13.

Putrid basketball like that is typical of early April. By Game 79, most legs are leaden, most attention-spans worn out, most playoff seedings settled; everyone is looking forward to whatever relief awaits in a week, whether that’s postseason basketball or the respite of the offseason. Not so much this year. The parity that defined the 2022-23 season is even more pronounced this year: Basically only the Celtics at one in the East, the Clippers at four in the West, and the Bulls and Hawks at nine and ten in the East are locked in. That means 16 teams still have something to keep playing for this late in the season, which is extremely unusual. The thick middle of the Eastern Conference is the most topsy-turvy, with the second-place Bucks and eighth-place Heat separated by four games, but they and all the teams between are real actual NBA teams and should not have to seriously worry about defeating whichever group of ding-dongs climbs out of the nine-ten toilet to make the playoffs.

By far the most anxiety-riddled segment of the standings is in the play-in zone in the Western Conference. With the Mavericks forgetting how to lose, there is one guaranteed playoff spot left for the five-team group between sixth and tenth in the standings. The Pelicans are three games ahead of the Warriors, and between them lie the Suns, Kings, and Lakers in that order. Nobody is playing what anyone would call competent basketball. Each team is flawed in a unique way. Everyone will spend the last week going head-to-head against each other. As aesthetic experiences, forthcoming Kings–Suns and Lakers–Pelicans games will probably be unremarkable and ugly, though the sheer competitive force will make them oddly riveting all the same.

Devin Booker shot 1-for-11 in 40 minutes yesterday and had to watch as Russell Westbrook had his best game of the season. If the Suns make the playoffs, they will do so with an unearned reputation as a group of fearsome killers who inspire respect and fear, because of how good their top three players are. Kevin Durant, Booker, and Bradley Beal are all extremely talented, but because they are also all so dedicated to only taking and making the most difficult shots in basketball, they are prone to heinous stretches like their first half on Tuesday. Jusuf Nurkic is playing about as well as he could be expected to play—he’s up to 13 rebounds per game after the all-star break and is the only reason why the Suns are a faint positive on the glass—but he’s the only guy who matters who isn’t essentially a shooting guard. Phoenix’s highest level is formidable, though it is largely a matter of shooting variability and that’s no way to live this late in the season.

Sacramento is circling the drain at a strange end to a deeply middling season. Less than a month ago, they were a worse version of last year’s run-and-gun three-seed team, with Domantas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox leading a decent offense that was running slightly less and gunning appreciably worse. Kevin Huerter was borderline unplayable, nudging up to a grim threshold that Harrison Barnes crossed months ago, though the defense had improved enough around them, thanks largely to Keon Ellis, that they seemed to have a real chance to finish fifth or sixth. All they had to do was hold their own at home against the Mavericks in a baseball series at home. Instead, they lost by 36 and Luka Doncic destroyed Malik Monk’s knee; two days later, Barnes committed one of the most soul-crushing turnovers of the season to help cement his team’s fate.

It got worse. Without Monk, Sacramento has two players capable of creating a shot for their teammates, and as great as Sabonis and Fox are, neither can really shoot, which makes them straightforward to defend. Like the Suns, the Kings depend almost entirely on shooting luck, and in games against the Knicks and Thunder, they built up 20-point leads that were easily erased once things leveled out (in between those losses, they also blew a golden chance to beat the Celtics in Boston). Unlike the Suns, the Kings’ highest level doesn’t inspire fear.

They seem set for the play-in, though the Lakers are a half-game behind them and they will have to find a way to win at least one of their games against the Suns and Pelicans to avoid playing and almost certainly losing to the Warriors in the nine–ten game. The present-day stakes are obvious, though also, the Kings owe a lottery-protected first-rounder to Atlanta, and this is the best possible year to convey that pick. If they fall into the lottery, they will be saddled with a useless first-rounder and they will be hamstrung with few available future picks to improve a roster that tops out as a non-competitive 48-win first-round loser.

To avert that fate, they will have to outpace the Lakers and Warriors. L.A. has come on strong since D’Angelo Russell started taking and making what feels like 50 threes per game; the Lakers have only one game left against a real team; and by the final day of the season New Orleans will probably have the six seed locked up, and thus nothing to play for. LeBron James is only growing stronger as the season progresses, and the Lakers are still playing their heinously unattractive, brutally effective brand of basketball as combat sport. Meanwhile, the Warriors are still their now-trademark brand of dangerous and inconsistent, and the prospect of having to stop Steph Curry still terrifies. L.A. lost to the Dubs last night at home, blowing a great chance to put pressure on the Kings.

That loss typifies what makes this race so anxiety-inducing but also kind of great. Everyone has something to play for, but not always the ability to seize their moment.

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