SALT LAKE CITY — When the topic of seeding was brought up, Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder quickly remembered a crazy night two seasons ago — a night that was pretty bleak for many Utah fans.
On the final day of the 2018-19 regular season, Utah was looking at two potential matchups for their first round series: The Jazz would start the playoffs in Portland or they'd head to the much-less preferred destination of Houston to face the Rockets.
There were comebacks of as many as 25 points, buzzer-beaters were hit, and suddenly three results that would have pushed the Jazz to Portland swung back and sent them to Houston. Minnesota lost an 11-point lead with 3:27 left; Sacramento lost a 25-point second-half lead; and Oklahoma City stormed back from 14 down in the fourth quarter to beat the Rockets. Utah just needed just one of those to go the other way.
The lesson? Don't plan on anything.
"We had like a point 0.1% chance of playing Houston and we ended up playing them and so you really can't control who you're going to play," Snyder said.
Utah is finding out that life at the top of the standings is similar to life in the middle. The Jazz have all but wrapped up a top-two seed, yet still have no idea who they are going to face. In fact, with less than two weeks left in the regular season, nothing in the Western Conference is decided.
The Jazz and Suns have flip-flopped the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds each night over the last four days — a pattern that will likely continue for a couple more days, at least. Further down the standings you'll find the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets duking it out for the third seed. Meanwhile, the LA Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, and Portland Trail Blazers are all trying to avoid the dreaded play-in games.
On the night of April 30, each of the top six seeds in the West changed — and many have changed again since. So if a team is hoping to set up a specific matchup or avoid a certain team, well, good luck. The volatile nature of the standings makes that near impossible.
"The West is so good and has been so good that there's always this clump of teams, and seeding can change within a period of a couple games," Snyder said. "I think you just have to focus on what you can do. And those other things, as they say, take care of themselves."
But the worst-kept secret in the league is that most teams simply want to rest and get healthy for a playoff run. The COVID-19 compacted season has left multiple players on the injury report and the short time between games has meant a lot less time to get legs back. But the uncertainty in the standings, sitting and resting players is easier said than done.
The defending champion Lakers likely don't care what seed they are, they just want to be in. But the play-in game format poses a threat to even that. That's probably why LeBron James came out so hard against it last week, stating: "Whoever came up with that (expletive) needs to be fired."
Maverick owner Mark Cuban has also put the format on blast. Funny how the teams that are in danger of getting into the mini tournament are the ones speaking out so hard against it. But they aren't alone, either. Snyder said it's "a little bit ironic" that the No. 1 seed team finds out its opponent the last of all the playoff teams.
So Snyder's approach of not focusing on the standings — truthful or not (the Jazz have tanked a game here or there for seeding purposes in the past) — is probably the only way to go.
"We don't put too much pressure on it," center Derrick Favors said on Monday. "It would be nice. But once you reach the playoffs, none of that other stuff matters. You get homecourt advantage. Other than that, everybody starts off 0-0 and you have to beat a team four times."
Utah, though, has found it much easier to win at home than on the road. Their home record of 28-4 is by far the best in the NBA. Their road record of 19-14 is tied for seventh-best in the West.
That was the reason Bojan Bogdanovic said the team has to be "locked in for first place."
At this point, that's all the Jazz can control anyway.