To make sense of the Western Play-in Race, follow the stars

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It’s not enough it’s simple, and I grant it. But to a greater extent than any other team sport, basketball is a game the outcome of which can be tilted and the shape of which can be distorted by a single player. And in the race for eighth place in the Western Conference playoffs – a sprint that still features four teams as it enters its home streak, and which will be decided when they all take the court on Thursday – it’s the teams. with the breakup stars stepping up and looking to leave their competition in the dust.

No one in Orlando hits the gas quite like Damian Lillard. Ahead of the NBA reboot, the five-time All-Star made it clear he wasn’t interested in participating unless his Trail Blazers had a real opportunity to make their way into the playoffs. With eight “ranking games” and the possibility of a series of play-ins on the board, Lillard asked his teammates for a single gift at a makeshift party to celebrate his 30 years in the bubble: “Let’s not lose our fucking time here. ”

They did not do it. Portland’s won five of its seven games on the restart, both losses by nine points in aggregate to the title hopefuls Celtics and Clippers. Against Los Angeles, Lillard missed two free throws that could have given Portland the advantage with 18 seconds remaining, and missed a 3-point with nine ticks remaining that would have tied him; it sparked all kinds of loud sneers, shit chat, and social media sniping. It also prompted a hell-and-sulfur rebound from Lillard, who dropped 51 points to the injured Sixers on Sunday to keep the Blazers afloat, and followed with 61– winning his season and career records, and passing TJ Warren for the best Bubble Ball score – to bring down the Mavericks and pass Portland to Memphis in exclusive possession of eighth:

As has become his custom, Lillard completely decimated Dallas drop pick-and-roll coverage, repeatedly going into 3s out of dribbling whenever he saw an inch of space. When the Mavericks’ defenders came out on him, he passed them to step into the paint to twist layups, drop passes to his big men or contact to reach the line. Lady had it all in the bag Tuesday, finishing 17 for 32 from the floor, 9 for 17 from 3 points, and a perfect 18 for 18 from the charity to go with eight assists against three turnover in 41 minutes. He used them all when Portland needed it most, scoring or assisting on 30 of the Blazers’ 36 points in the fourth quarter before ending Dallas in a chilling offensive foul on Mavericks reserve Trey Burke.

Yes Gary Trent Jr. has been a 3-and-D revelation, and yes Carmelo Anthony has stepped back in time, and yes Jusuf Nurkic has been everything Portland could have asked for when he returned from injury. But the Blazers now find themselves in the playoff position for the first time since early January because Lillard – leading the bubble in scores and minutes, third in assists – did so out of sheer will.

As Lillard polishes her bona fide superstar, Devin Booker – Dame’s fiercest competition for Bubble MVP – sets hers firmly for the first time, in high-stakes end-of-season games.

Although he missed six of his first nine shots in a slow start for the Suns against a 76ers team missing their first five through injury or rest, Booker helped Phoenix get back into the game at the second quarter clearing his way to the line in the second quarter, gifted Philly rookie Matisse Thybulle is struggling and getting into a rhythm. After half-time, Booker broke away, scoring 21 of his game-high 35 points after intermission, including an extremely emphatic knockdown straight into the cups of Furkan Korkmaz and Norvel Pelle:

The All-Star guard also distributed six assists in the second half, taking advantage of all the attention he got from Sixers defenders to handle covers and prepare his teammates for easy catch and shot opportunities and high percentage looks:

Booker was in no hurry during his slow start, letting the game come to him, patiently making his teammates, working all three levels to find his shot, and ultimately burying the opponent. By the last buzz of Phoenix’s 130-117 win, Booker had turned his fragile start into another monster performance: 35 points on 11 shots in 24, nine rebounds and seven assists against just two turnovers in 41 minutes. It was his fifth 30-point game in Orlando and his third consecutive 35-point outing; only Lillard, James Harden and Luka Doncic score more in the bubble than Booker, who also averages 6.1 dimes per game and shoots a less than 50 percent shade from the field to lead Phoenix to seven straight wins. That streak, the franchise’s longest in over a decade, has the Suns with a Blazers half-game in eighth place, neck and neck with Memphis.

The Grizzlies’ free fall continued Tuesday in a 15-point sticking to the Celtics at full strength, their sixth loss in seven tries in the bubble. Memphis had no defensive responses for Jayson Tatum (29 points on just 13 shots) or a healthy-looking Kemba Walker, and the Grizz continued to struggle to space the floor and generate quality goods with big head man Jaren Jackson Jr. and ace. Reserve player Tyus Jones is both injured. But Ja Morant raged against the Death of the Light in the kind of performance that reminds you of why he’s set to win Rookie of the Year in a landslide:

Morant toppled over and worked his way through the Celtics’ defense, cutting his way through the teeth of their pick-and-roll blanket and going all the way to the edge, free throw line or in enough space to make profitable passes. He’s also leaned into defense, doing his best to get into the passing lanes, wreak havoc on Boston sets and try to create opportunities to end Celtic possessions so Memphis can get out and run. The rookie finished with 26 points on 13 shots, 13 assists, four rebounds, two blocks and one steal; he did it at 100 miles an hour and in style, but still failed, and the Grizzlies fell in the standings as a result.

While the new kid on the block came a bit shy, an old head – comparatively, at least – helped barely recognizable Spurs into the mix for a playing spot.

While anachronistic as it may be in the age of high-volume scorers bombing two steps down the half-court, DeMar DeRozan’s unmatched footwork and midrange mastery has been exactly what The Doctor has. ordered in San Antonio. DeRozan continued to shine as a powerful forward as Spurs rebooted the small ball against a Rockets team playing without Harden, scoring 23 points on a 9-for-13 shot with six rebounds, four assists and two steals in. a 123-105. win over Houston. Whether he’s working pick-and-roll, out of the post or face-to-face in isolation, the 31-year-old finds folds in the defense, gets to his places and gets up for this hard-to-challenge record. release the jumper. Only Lillard has scored more points in the fourth quarter in the bubble than DeMar, who is a scorching 10-for-12 (83.3 percent) on “clutch” attempts taken when the score is within five points. in the last five minutes; when the game is close late, Gregg Popovich knows he can put the ball in DeRozan’s hands and trust the veteran to give his team a chance to win.

After a 5-2 start in the bubble, Spurs now have that chance; they’re seated half a game behind eighth-place Portland and just a thousandth of a percentage point behind Memphis and Phoenix heading into their final day of standings. With all four teams still alive, there are enough permutations and combinations left for possible game matches to make your head spin. The relative level of engagement of each team’s opponent could also play a major role: Memphis will play a Bucks team that has already sewn the no. 1 seed overall and that could be without Giannis Antetokounmpo, if the league suspends him for beating Moe Wagner on Tuesday; the Spurs face the Jazz, who appear to be engaging in a cat-and-mouse game midway through the Western standings to avoid another playoff game with Houston; the Suns will face the Mavs, who appear to have a ticket to a first-round meeting with the Clippers; the Blazers take on the Nets, who appear to have nothing to play with but continue to play ass anyway.

For all that has been settled, there is still so much to discover in this surprisingly thrilling race down the West, and crippling it seems terribly tricky. If the last couple of weeks have taught us anything, maybe it’s just to ride with the best players, betting that they will push their teams through the finish line. Lady is that guy. Booker proves he deserves to be considered in this business. DeRozan has more playoff experience than any of his competition, and Ja is just young enough not to know he should be afraid of a moment like this. With a game to the left, the stars that appear when the lights are brightest and money is on the table might win out. It’s not enough it’s simple. Sometimes, however, it could be.

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