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To Make Sense of the West’s Play-in Race, Follow the Stars

Damian Lillard nearly single-handedly willed the Blazers past the Mavs and into eighth place. But he’s not the only marquee player in the running. It may sound simple, but the NBA’s last playoff seed could come down to star power.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s not quite this simple, and I’ll grant that. But to a greater extent than just about any other team sport, basketball is a game whose outcome can be tilted and whose shape can be contorted by a single player. And in the race for the Western Conference’s eighth playoff spot—a sprint that still includes four teams as it enters its home stretch, and that will be decided when they all take the court on Thursday—it’s the teams with the game-breaking stars who are speeding up and looking to leave their competition in the dust.

Nobody in Orlando is hitting the gas quite like Damian Lillard. Before the NBA’s restart, the five-time All-Star made it clear that he wasn’t interested in taking part unless his Trail Blazers would have a true opportunity to earn their way into the postseason. With eight “seeding games” and the possibility of a play-in series on the board, Lillard asked his teammates for just one gift at a makeshift party to celebrate his 30th birthday in the bubble: “Let’s not waste our fucking time out here.”

They haven’t. Portland’s won five of its seven games in the restart, with the two losses coming by nine total points to the title-hopeful Celtics and Clippers. Against L.A., Lillard missed two free throws that could’ve given Portland the lead with 18 seconds to go, and missed a 3-pointer with nine ticks left that would’ve tied it; this prompted all manner of boisterous snickering, shit talk, and social media sniping. It also prompted a hellfire-and-brimstone bounceback by Lillard, who dropped 51 on the wounded Sixers on Sunday to keep the Blazers afloat, and followed that up with 61—tying his season and career bests, and topping T.J. Warren for the Bubble Ball high score—to knock off the Mavericks and move Portland past Memphis into sole possession of eighth place:

As has become his custom, Lillard absolutely decimated Dallas’s drop pick-and-roll coverage, repeatedly stepping into off-the-dribble 3s whenever he saw an inch of space. When the Mavericks’ defenders stepped out on him, he blew past them to get into the paint for twisting layups, drop-off passes to his big men, or contact to get to the line. Dame had every shot in the bag on Tuesday, finishing 17-for-32 from the floor, 9-for-17 from 3-point range, and a perfect 18-for-18 from the charity stripe to go with eight assists against three turnovers in 41 minutes. He used them all when Portland needed them most, too, scoring or assisting on 30 of the Blazers’ 36 fourth-quarter points before finishing Dallas off by drawing a game-icing offensive foul on Mavericks reserve Trey Burke.

Yes, Gary Trent Jr. has been a 3-and-D revelation, and yes, Carmelo Anthony has turned back the clock, and yes, Jusuf Nurkic has been everything Portland could’ve asked for in his return from injury. But the Blazers now find themselves in playoff position for the first time since early January because Lillard—leading the bubble in scoring and minutes, third in assists—has made it so through sheer force of will.

While Lillard burnishes his superstar bona fides, Devin Booker—Dame’s stiffest competition for Bubble MVP—is firmly establishing his own, in late-season games with real stakes, for the first time.

Despite missing six of his first nine shots in a sluggish start for the Suns against a 76ers team missing its entire starting five due to injury or rest, Booker helped Phoenix back into the game in the second quarter by grinding his way to the line in the second quarter, getting gifted Philly rookie Matisse Thybulle in foul trouble and getting himself into a rhythm. After halftime, Booker broke loose, scoring 21 of his game-high 35 points after intermission, including one extremely emphatic throwdown directly in the mugs of Furkan Korkmaz and Norvel Pelle:

The All-Star guard also dished six assists in the second half, leveraging all the attention he drew from Sixers defenders to manipulate coverages and set his teammates up for easy catch-and-shoot opportunities and high-percentage looks:

Booker didn’t press during his slow start, letting the game come to him, patiently getting his teammates going, working at all three levels to find his stroke, and eventually burying the opposition. By the final buzzer of Phoenix’s 130-117 win, Booker had turned his shaky beginning into another monster performance: 35 points on 11-for-24 shooting, nine rebounds, and seven assists against just two turnovers in 41 minutes. It was his fifth 30-point game in Orlando, and his third straight 35-point outing; only Lillard, James Harden, and Luka Doncic are scoring more in the bubble than Booker, who’s also averaging 6.1 dimes a game and shooting a shade under 50 percent from the field in leading Phoenix to seven straight wins. That streak, the franchise’s longest in more than a decade, has the Suns with a half-game of the eighth-place Blazers, neck-and-neck with Memphis.

The Grizzlies’ free fall continued Tuesday in a 15-point pasting at the hands of the full-strength Celtics, their sixth loss in seven tries in the bubble. Memphis had no defensive answers for Jayson Tatum (29 points on just 13 shots) or a looking-healthy-again Kemba Walker, and the Grizz continued to struggle to space the floor and generate quality possessions with linchpin big man Jaren Jackson Jr. and ace reserve table-setter Tyus Jones both injured. But Ja Morant raged against the dying of the light in the kind of performance that reminds you why he’s about to win Rookie of the Year in a landslide:

Morant bobbed and weaved through the Celtics defense, working his way into the teeth of their pick-and-roll coverage and either getting all the way to the rim, to the free throw line, or into enough space to make profitable passes. He also dug in on defense, doing his damnedest to get into passing lanes, wreak some havoc on Boston’s sets, and try to create opportunities to end Celtic possessions so that Memphis can get out and run. The freshman finished with 26 points on 13 shots, 13 assists, four rebounds, two blocks, and a steal; he did it going 100 miles per hour and in style, but he still fell short, and the Grizzlies fell in the standings as a result.

While the new kid on the block came up a little shy, an old head—comparatively, at least—helped the barely recognizable Spurs in the mix for a play-in spot.

Anachronistic though it may be in the era of high-volume scorers bombing away from two steps across half-court, DeMar DeRozan’s peerless footwork and midrange mastery have been just what the doctor ordered for San Antonio. DeRozan continued to shine as a power forward in the Spurs’ small-ball reboot against a Rockets team playing without Harden, pouring in 23 points on 9-for-13 shooting with six rebounds, four assists, and two steals in a 123-105 win over Houston. Whether working in pick-and-roll, out of the post, or facing up in isolation, the 31-year-old is finding creases in the defense, getting to his spots, and raising up for that tough-to-contest high-release jumper. Only Lillard has scored more points in the fourth quarter in the bubble than DeMar, who’s a scorching 10-for-12 (83.3 percent) on “clutch” attempts taken when the score’s within five points in the final five minutes; when the game’s tight late, Gregg Popovich knows he can put the ball in DeRozan’s hands and trust the veteran to give his team a chance to come out on top.

After a 5-2 start in the bubble, the Spurs now have that chance; they sit a half-game back of eighth-place Portland, and only one one-thousandth of a percentage point behind Memphis and Phoenix heading into their final day of seeding games. With all four teams still alive, there remain enough permutations and combinations for possible play-in matchups to make your head spin. The relative level of commitment of each team’s opponent could play a major role, too: Memphis will play a Bucks team that’s already sewn up the no. 1 overall seed and that could be without Giannis Antetokounmpo, if the league suspends him for headbutting Moe Wagner on Tuesday; the Spurs will face the Jazz, who have seemed to be engaging in a game of cat-and-mouse in the middle of the Western standings to avoid another playoff matchup with Houston; the Suns will take on the Mavs, who seem ticketed for a first-round meeting with the Clippers; the Blazers take on the Nets, who seem to have nothing to play for yet keep playing their asses off all the same.

For all that’s been settled, there’s still so much left to figure out in this surprisingly thrilling race at the bottom of the West, and handicapping it seems awfully tricky. If the last two weeks have taught us anything, though, it might be to just ride with the best players, betting that they’ll push their teams across the finish line. Dame’s that dude. Booker’s proving he deserves to be considered in that company. DeRozan’s got more playoff experience than any of his competitors, and Ja’s just young enough not to know he ought to be scared of a moment like this. With one game left, whichever stars show up when the lights are brightest and the money’s on the table might carry the day. It’s not quite that simple. Sometimes, though, it might be.