With the Los Angeles Clippers afforded a top-four playoff seed, thanks to an underperforming Pacific Division, the Memphis Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets are headed for a furiously competitive two-team race for the Western Conference's third seed.
And it's one that the Grizzlies won't soon be conceding.
A third seed holds a number of potential benefits for Memphis, not the least of which is a first-round matchup with the Golden State Warriors.
The Grizzlies swept their three-game series with the Warriors. And that only begins to hint at their natural matchup advantages in this potential playoff meeting.
While the Warriors have made drastic strides on the defensive end this season (102.5 defensive rating, 12th in the NBA via ESPN), the Grizzlies have been an elite defensive club for the past three seasons and have been even better this season (98.2 defensive rating, second in the league).
Not coincidentally, Memphis' lineup is noticeably absent of the defensive liabilities sprinkled in Golden State's starting five. It's nearly impossible to crack Memphis coach Lionel Hollins' rotation without being a strong defensive player. As for Jackson, his two most utilized players (Stephen Curry and David Lee) are staunch supporters of the "best defense is a good offense" mindset.
The Warriors average 100.9 points per game this season (via ESPN). But in their three meetings with the Grizzlies, the Warriors have managed a meager 91.3. The Grizzlies, on the other hand, average just 93.8 points on the season, but shredded the Warriors for 99.0 in the season series.
Now it bears mentioning that the oft-injured, but healthier-of-late Warriors big man Andrew Bogut only played in one of those three games. And that game, a 99-93 Memphis win, saw the Warriors trailing by just one entering the final quarter before falling apart later.
But Bogut's presence only helps the Warriors negate the impacts of one-half of the Grizzlies two-headed interior monster. Bogut can potentially force Marc Gasol into an exhaustive series, which leaves Lee facing a daunting matchup with fellow All-Star Zach Randolph.
Not to mention, Bogut will also be tasked with diverting the prodding Mike Conley on Curry's gaffes.
The Grizzlies don't overwhelm opponents with blistering jabs, but rather pepper them with a series of body blows. Bogut has made a career out of weathering those punches—the same cannot be said of his Warriors teammates.
But the benefits of that third seed extend beyond a potential first-round meeting with the Warriors.
It means avoiding a Los Angeles Clippers team that has already defeated the Grizzlies twice this season and delaying a matchup with the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs, who have twice defeated their Southwest Division rivals.
The Grizzlies wouldn't have an easy going in the second round, regardless of their seeding, but they did win the three-game season series, 2-1, with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Now the Grizzlies still have work to do just to get that third seed. They hold an identical record with the Nuggets (50-24), but Denver holds the tiebreaker, thanks to a dominant 3-1 edge in the teams' four-game season series.
This also is assuming that the Warriors can hold on to that sixth seed, a task that grows increasingly difficult with each Houston Rockets' win.
But the Grizzlies can't worry about that. They have to do something that every team will claim to be doing from here on out—take things one game at a time.
Of course, with the Nuggets holding their own winning record against the Warriors and losing record against the Spurs, the Grizzlies won't be the only team gunning for that third seed.
I can't tell you who will emerge from these final weeks as the No. 3 team out West, but I can safely predict who will get the win from this frenetic race: the fans.
It will be one heck of a ride for both teams down the stretch.