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Welcome To The Home Stretch Of The NBA Season Where It's Now Butt Clenching Time Across The League

I don't know about anyone else, but it's hard to believe we're already at the stretch run of the NBA season. It feels like just yesterday we kicked things off in October and now here we are in a blink of an eye with only around 10 games left before the fun truly starts. 

Given how there has only been one team in the league who has secured a playoff spot and their playoff positioning, we have a whole bunch of shit that's still up for grabs as we sprint to the finish line of the regular season, which means we are also at the time where the panic meter starts to become a factor. The time of screwing around is over for the majority of the league, especially when the seeding races are so close in both conferences. Say what you want about the Play In tournament, but there's no denying that it has made these final 10ish games of the season way more interesting.

So with that in mind, I thought it would be fun to check in on the panic level of a handful of teams who are about to play some pretty important basketball over the next two-ish weeks. While most of the drama is taking place out West, as you'll see there are still a couple of teams in the East that aren't quite out of the woods just yet.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Let's start with one of those East teams, because the Cavs are certainly in an interesting spot. First off, the only reason I even think they'd qualify for a "panic" type of blog is mostly due to the fact that the are still dealing with a crazy amount of injuries to key guys. Mitchell has only played 5 games since the All Star Break and has missed 12 of their last 14 games. Evan Mobley recently came back a few games ago, but he also missed a nice chunk of games that held him out of the lineup for the majority of this month.

That goes a long way of telling the story of a team that is just 8-11 since the All Star break while owning the 22nd ranked offense, 15th ranked defense, and 19th ranked net rating over that span.

Here's why I would think it's normal to have some level of panic. At the moment, the Cavs sit just 0.5 games ahead of the Knicks for the 3 seed, and just 1.5 games ahead of the Magic. The Cavs (4-6 over their last 10), aren't exactly playing their best basketball, and have a closing schedule that looks like this

Two back to backs on the same 5 game West Coast road trip is BRUTAL. There's a possibility the Cavs go from one side of the bracket to the other, which in my opinion would not be to their advantage. We all saw what happened in the Cavs/Knicks series last year, and CLE is a combined 2-4 against BOS/NYK this season, which in theory would be their potential path should they fall to the 4/5 range. To go from being on the other side of the bracket to potentially not even having homecourt in the first round is a pretty big swing. 

Add in there isn't a whole lot of time left to get guys back into a rhythm once they return from injury, I think it's fair to suggest there is a slight level of panic for the Cavs down the stretch. 

Dallas Mavericks

We see a similar situation when it comes to the Mavs and how crazy their final 10 games are going to be, only in my opinion their stakes are much higher.

As of this blog, the Mavs are playing some of the best basketball in the entire NBA seeing as how they've won 5 straight and 9 of their last 10. WIth a run like that you would think it would get them some separation, but it's actually the opposite. It's just as likely we see the Mavs finish as high as 5th in the West as it is they drop back into the Play In. Even with this great stretch of play, things are still razor thin

While I think catching the Clippers may be a bit of a stretch, that's technically still on the table as well I suppose. So just play it out. The Mavs could play their way into either homecourt in the first round, or run the risk of a situation where one bad game ends your season. That would be stressful as fuck for me as a Mavs fan even while I'm watching them stack all these wins. 

The way they are currently playing combined with their relatively easy schedule would have me optimistic, but they still aren't out of the danger zone for the stretch run. Of all the teams that are jumbled in the 6-8 seeds out West, I think the Mavs are really the only ones that have the potential to safely avoid the Play In, but as we know, anything can happen. One blown lead or one bad loss could drastically change their potential playoff path.

Here's the good news. After destroying the Kings last night, they have another game against SAC on Friday night. You win both of those and that goes a long way to prevent them from being jumped in any tiebreaker scenario. The bad news is that following that game they have a pair against the Warriors (more on them later) and a pair against the red hot Rockets, as well as MIA and OKC that will both also be playing for playoff seeding. They also have 6 of their final 10 on the road, where they are just 21-14 on the season (worst of any top 6 seed).

Los Angeles Clippers

Call me crazy, but when you're in the midst of a 4-6 stretch and are hanging onto your top 4 spot by a thread, it's probably not great to hear this from the head coach

Like the Cavs, the Clippers have been pretty terrible since the break. Just 8-10 overall with the 28th ranked defense and the 18th ranked net rating, the reason for panic would be the fact that these games are all happening with the Clippers being relatively healthy too. Of those 18 games, Kawhi has played in 17, Harden 16, George 15, Zubac 16, Powell 14 etc, so it's not as if they've had to try and survive without their best players. Only Westbrook has missed any real significant time.

So for me, this is a big time panic team. While I don't think we'll see the Clippers fall into the Play In, I do think it's more than possible we see them blow their homecourt. Remember, they are just 0.5 ahead of NO and only 1.5 ahead of DAL while owning the 10th toughest remaining schedule in the league.

This would have me nervous as a Clippers fan mostly because it does feel like we're starting to see Playoff Harden show up a little bit early, and that's a bad sign for a team that is basically in a win now window. So between the results, the vibes, and the underlying fear of the potential playoff collapses of guys like Harden and PG13, I don't see how it's not time to panic for the Clippers. Not to mention George still doesn't have his extension, so if things end poorly this season what happens then?

Phoenix Suns

While the standings suggest the Suns are only 1 game out of playing their way out of the Play In, to anyone who watches them, they look more and more like a cooked product. Oh, and the Suns also own the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA to close out the season. That would be one of my main reasons for panic when it comes to this team.

Already not playing great, they close with DEN, OKC, MIN (2x), LAC (2x), CLE, NO (2x), SAC. That is one hell of a tough stretch, but it's also only part of the panic level for me.

The other side of course is the fact that the Suns might be the worst 4th quarter team we've ever seen. On the season, the Suns rank 30th in the league with a -14.1 net rating in the 4th quarter. I don't think it's crazy to imagine a scenario where they are in a close game down the stretch and will need to come through in the 4th quarter, and that's just not something that has happened at any point this season.

When it comes to the Suns, the narrative has mostly been "Just give them time! The Big 3 have barely played together!", but maybe this is just who they are? Their offensive style isn't really built for 2024 seeing as how they almost never shoot 3s, and defensively they've either been average or below average all year.

Let's say the Suns stay in the Play In and have to go up against a team like SAC or DAL in that 7/8 game (combined 3-4 against both). That's just a bad matchup stylistically for them. These games aren't always about who the better team is, but who can be better than night, and both the Kings and Mavs are top 4 in the league in 3PA. As we've seen post ASB in a lot of the Suns losses, it all comes down to basketball math. They keep trying to trade 2s for 3s, and when playing a team that gets up 38-40 3PA a game, that's simply not a winning formula in 2024.

So for me, this would be where the panic truly sets in. You find yourself in a win or go home situation if you're the 8 seed, and you have to play a team that will most likely make it rain from deep while all you can do is score from the midrange. Then, even if it's somehow close in the 4th quarter, you're the worst 4th quarter team in the league.

Golden State Warriors

I know Draymond Green said he wasn't concerned about the Rockets, but he and every single Warrior certainly should be. Like the other teams in this list, the Warriors have been pretty shitty lately. Just 4-6 over their last 10, their options are starting to look like either securing the 10 seed to face the Lakers in the Play In, or get caught by the Rockets (1 game back) and enter the Lottery in a year where they do not own their 1st round pick.

A quick look at their final schedule might give you some hope

but then you remember that the Warriors are just 18-29 vs teams .500 or better this season. Of that list, 6 of the final 11 are against teams that fit that description. 

And while the Warriors will always have a shot as long as Steph Curry is alive, I certainly wouldn't love having to deal with LeBron and the Lakers size in a Play In game. 

So seeing as how the Warriors are on basically on life support at the moment, I don't know how there couldn't be a whole lot of panic going on. Missing the playoffs while not owning your pick would be a disaster, and even if they somehow go on a run and make it out of the Play In as an 8 seed, your reward for that is most likely the best player on earth in Nikola Jokic and the Nuggetes, a team the Warriors are 0-4 against this season.

Then you add in the potential free agency of Klay Thompson this summer and things get dicier by the day.

The beauty of all this is that as fans, we get to enjoy the chaos. Because make no mistake, this final 10 game stretch is going to be filled with it. It sounds crazy to suggest that they are all must-wins, but looking at the standings and what they could mean for potential playoff runs, they all sort of are depending on who your favorite team is. 

Given how awesome the 2023-24 NBA season has been, it's only fitting that the stretch run is setting up to be even better.