SALT LAKE CITY — The play-in tournament concept has been praised by some and blasted by others (including some of the game's biggest stars). But no matter what side you fall on, the games are happening.
On Wednesday, the Western Conference play-in tournament will commence with the Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs battling it out for the final two seeds.
So which team or teams should Jazz fans be rooting for to land the No. 8 spot? We'll break it down; but first, a quick refresher on the format.
- No. 7 LA Lakers vs. No. 8 Golden State Warriors
The winner of this game will be the No. 7 seed in the playoffs and will play No. 2 Phoenix Suns. The loser will have one more chance to reach the postseason in a do-or-die contest on Friday.
- No. 9 Memphis Grizzlies vs. No. 10 San Antonio Spurs
The winner will advance to Friday's game against the loser of Lakers/Warriors for the final spot in the postseason. The loser is eliminated from the postseason.
- Loser of Lakers/Warriors vs. Winner of Grizzlies/Spurs
The winner of this game will be the eighth seed and Utah's first-round opponent.
Who should Jazz fans be rooting for to win the Warriors-Lakers?
This one is easy: the Lakers. Throw out your fantasies of LeBron James and Co. losing both of these games and missing out on the postseason. A much more likely scenario is the Lakers, who were one of the top seeds in the West for the first half of the season before injuries took their toll, suddenly find a groove and become one of the most lethal lower seeds in league history.
LA is the defending champ and the Lakers are still widely seen as one of the favorites to win the title. Oh, and James hasn't lost in the playoffs outside of the Finals since 2010. Even as a No. 8 seed, LA would be favored in a first-round matchup against the Jazz. If that were to happen, it would be some of the worst luck a No. 1 seed has ever had.
That doesn't mean the Jazz wouldn't have a chance. In fact, it would likely be a fascinating series. Would the Lakers' No. 1 defense be able to shut down Utah's elite offense? Could LA's porous 3-point offense (25th in the league) be able to keep up with the Jazz's sharpshooters? And there's one potential upside to the Lakers landing at eight: They might not be completely healthy by the first round, so it could be best to get them earlier than later — and a sign of that might be losing to Golden State in Wednesday's play-in game.
Still, it's a matchup the Jazz likely want to avoid all together. So as tough as it is for many Utah fans to say, go Lakers — at least on Wednesday.
Who should the Jazz fans be rooting for to win Grizzlies-Spurs?
The Jazz outscored the Spurs by an average of 21.3 points in three easy wins this season. So, obviously, the Jazz want the Spurs to win, right? It's not that simple.
The Spurs finished six games under .500 and were a putrid 12-29 against .500 or better teams. Translation: the Jazz weren't the only team to beat up on San Antonio — especially since Derrick White went down.
The Spurs have won just two of 12 games since White sprained his ankle. With White out for the remainder of the season, it seems unlikely the Spurs will suddenly string together two straight wins against good teams. And less so when the second game would be against playoff tested players on either the Warriors and Lakers. While the Spurs may represent the easiest potential opponent for Utah, a win on Wednesday would all but assure the Jazz play either the Lakers or Warriors in the first round.
So if Jazz fans want to avoid LeBron James and Steph Curry in Round 1, it's go Grizzlies on Wednesday.
How good of a matchup would the Grizzlies be for the Jazz?
Memphis isn't a bad team — it just doesn't match up with the Jazz very well. Ja Morant is an up-and-coming star, but can't shoot well enough to bend Utah's defense. Dillon Brooks, Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Anderson are all fine players but the Jazz have had little trouble defending them. In short, the Grizzlies wouldn't force the Jazz to adjust at all.
Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley and Joe Ingles would be able to feast in the pick and roll, and their base defense should be more than good enough for a quick series. That was all seen during a strange scheduling quirk when the Jazz played the Grizzlies three times in the span of four games in March — all Utah wins. Those games were played during a stretch where Memphis won 8-of-11 games; the three losses were all the Jazz.
The bad news: The Grizzlies have a combined record of 1-5 against the Warriors and Lakers this season — and the one win came in a game where Curry wasn't playing. Memphis lost on Sunday to the Warriors after surrendering an 18-4 Curry-fueled run to finish the contest. That game pushed Golden State to No. 8 in the standings.
So what's the most likely outcome?
The single-game format of the play-in creates more opportunity for upsets — Morant could go off, Curry or James could struggle, Gregg Popovich could bring the Spurs back from the dead. That said, most of the money is for the Jazz to meet up with the Warriors in the first round.
Is that bad? Well, it could be better. The Jazz went 1-2 against Golden State this season, with last week's loss in San Francisco still fresh on the mind of many Jazz fans — there could be some worry.
And some of it is warranted. Over the last 10 games, the Warriors have had the second-best net rating in the league at plus-10.5. Curry, meanwhile, is playing his best basketball of the season, scoring 37 points over the last month to claim the league's scoring title and push himself near the top of the MVP race.
The Jazz, though, have a couple things working for them: Utah has outscored the Warriors by 52 points during Rudy Gobert's minutes this season (and he'll be playing much more in the postseason); and Utah's bench, featuring two Sixth Man of the Year candidates, is far superior than Golden State's mismatched group of reserves.
Curry, alone, should be enough to get the Warriors into the first round — but he'll probably need some more help to beat the Jazz four times.