There are lots of compelling storylines to sort out over the last quarter of the season, but perhaps the most interesting of them is the seven-team race for the final four spots in the Western Conference playoffs.
Five games separate the seven teams in the loss column, and even the teams at the bottom of the ladder – Phoenix, Utah and Houston — have a chance to sneak in if a few variables flip their way. Four of the seven teams are missing a key rotation player right now; two had franchise stars traded away in February; another has suffered more knee injuries than an entire division should have to endure; and one has Tony Allen, emerging as perhaps the most entertaining/frightening/possibly insane player in the league.
Every night from now on will include a game with potential playoff implications, including Tuesday’s monster matchup between the Suns and Rockets in Phoenix.
Here’s a look at the seven teams in contention:
The Grizzlies (36-29) would make the playoffs if the season ended today. They’re 9-3 in their last 12 games and are one of just two teams here with a schedule that is both (relatively) easy and heavy on home games.
Ten of the Grizzlies’ last 17 games are at home, they have six games remaining against certain lottery teams and they play just four against the league’s elite. Three of those tough games come in a five-day span starting on March 23, when Memphis faces Boston, Chicago and San Antonio in succession. Rudy Gay, out with a dislocated shoulder, would be back by then under his original recovery timetable; whether he actually makes it in time for those games could be huge.
Two possible disadvantages, other than Gay’s injury:
1) The Grizz have already lost head-to-head tiebreakers with Denver and Houston, and they trail the Hornets 2-0 in the season series with two games remaining. They also trail the Jazz 2-1 head-to-head, though they’ll probably win that tiebreaker if they beat Utah on March 21.
2) They have several late-season games against teams that could have a ton at stake. They play the Hornets twice in April, and they face both New Orleans and Portland in the final week of the season.
Even so: The schedule overall is so favorable that Memphis should get in.
It feels funny to be pessimistic about the Blazers, who sit comfortably in sixth, at 36-27, with a two-game edge in the loss column over the two clubs right below them. With so few games left, that’s a real advantage. Having 10 of their final 19 games at home helps a bit, too.
But the schedule is brutal. Portland’s remaining opponents have a combined winning percentage of around .570 — the highest of any NBA team — and the Blazers have nine games left against the the top four in each conference (no team in this group has that many). Four of those nine games come on the second end of a back-to-back.
The Blazers have two games left against the Lakers, Thunder, Mavs and Spurs, meaning the edge they have over their fellow playoff hopefuls in conference record could vanish by the end of the season. Good news: Conference record would really only emerge as a tiebreaker against the Hornets.
If we (as neutral fans) are lucky, their April 12 game against the Grizzlies — their next-to-last game of the season — will be must-watch.
NEW ORLEANS HORNETS
The Hornets are 26-28 since starting the season 11-1, they’ve fallen all the way to seventh in the conference and they are tied with Phoenix and Memphis in the loss column. Even worse: Chris Paul is out after suffering a scary concussion over the weekend, and it’s unclear when he’ll be back. And without Paul, this may be the worst offensive team in the league.
Three pieces of good news:
1) The Hornets have only five road games left, the fewest among these seven teams.
2) They will largely be able to control their own destiny. Of their remaining 16 games, a whopping 10 come against the half-dozen teams in this group, including three against the Suns. The Hornets have a legitimate chance to win head-to-head tiebreakers against all six of their rivals here, and even if they end up splitting with the teams in their own division (Memphis and Houston), they go into the stretch run with a nice lead in divisional record over both of those clubs.
3) There is a chance — a chance – that the Hornets’ final two games (against Utah and Dallas) will come against teams with nothing to play for. Any edge helps.
Naturally, playing so many middle-of-the-road teams means the Hornets have only one cupcake: this Saturday in Sacramento. Win that one, please.
Denver enters the stretch run in the strongest position — in fifth place, at 37-27, and with what on the surface appears to be one of the easiest remaining schedules among this group.
The good news:
1) Denver faces seven teams bound for the lottery, tied for the most among this group (with Phoenix). If the Nuggets beat up on the patsies, they should get in.
2) They’ve already won the head-to-head tiebreaker with Memphis, and they have a chance to clinch tiebreaker wins over Portland, Phoenix and Utah. Their finale on April 13 comes against Utah, which could be out of it by then.
The bad news:
1) Ten of their last 18 games come on the road, making the Nuggets one of two teams here with more roadies than home games. Denver is 11-20 on the road, the worst mark among all Western Conference contenders.
2) A schedule packed with lottery teams comes with a bad flip side: seven games against the league’s best clubs, including a back-to-back against the Magic and Heat later this month and two games against the division-leading Thunder — games that could be crucial if the Nuggets finish tied with another divisional mate (the Blazers).
3) Danilo Gallinari is out for at least the next week or so with a broken toe.
Still: Given their current edge and their potential to beef up against bad teams, the Nuggets should hold strong.
John Hollinger’s playoff odds are not kind to the Jazz, who have more losses (31) than every team here but the Rockets and have gone 2-4 since dealing Deron Williams to New Jersey. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Utah might be out of it if the Jazz don’t win their next two games — roadies against the Raptors and Wolves. The schedule gets much tougher after that, and even after getting two road games out of the way, Utah’s final 16 games are evenly split between Salt Lake City and the road.
Five of those final 16 games will come against the West’s top four teams. Toss in a road game at Chicago, and things look pretty bleak for the Jazz.
They will have an impact in at least one way, though: Their final two games are against the Hornets and Nuggets, meaning the Jazz, even if they are out of it by then, can either play spoiler or serve as vacation-prepping roadkill for teams that badly need wins.
And there’s this: If Utah slips into the lottery, it’ll have two top-14 picks — its own and the one it got from New Jersey in the Williams deal. That’s a good start toward rebuilding.
Everyone loves Steve Nash, so most neutral fans will be rooting for Phoenix to get in and at least entertain us for a few games. And had Channing Frye not sustained a dislocated shoulder that will keep him out at least two weeks, the Suns wouldn’t really be that much of a long shot; they’re ninth right now but are tied with the Hornets and Grizzlies in the loss column with several games in hand.
The good news:
1) Of their final 21 games, 11 come in Phoenix.
2) Seven will come against lottery teams, tied with the Nuggets for the most in this group.
3) Looking ahead, their final three games, against Dallas, Minnesota and San Antonio (in that order), could come against teams with nothing at stake in terms of playoff seeding.
4) They have three games left with the Hornets and two with the Rockets, meaning Phoenix will have plenty of chances to climb in the standings and win head-to-head tiebreakers that are still at stake.
The bad news, of course, is that Frye will almost certainly miss four of those crucial head-to-head games. Frye hit a couple of highlight game-winning shots last week, but his true value to Phoenix goes well beyond that. He is the lone power forward coach Alvin Gentry has trusted consistently this season, and the acquisition of Marcin Gortat (who is on fire lately) has allowed Frye to stick at power forward instead of shifting at times to center. That has been helpful to everyone, and Frye over the last six weeks or so has shown a new aggression on both sides of the floor.
The pressure will be on Hakim Warrick to pick up the slack, and we’ll also see Phoenix go small more often, with Grant Hill or Jared Dudley playing a nominal power forward.
The NBA: Where an injury to Channing Frye can swing a playoff spot.
The Rockets were out of this a few weeks ago, but they’ve gotten back into it behind a 7-2 stretch in which they took care of several lottery teams and won two crucial road games — in New Orleans and Portland. They’re basically healthy aside from Yao Ming, though they did just deal their best wing defender to Memphis for a guy who may end up as the worst draft bust ever and a first-round pick (the pick, of course, being the point of the deal).
The Rockets don’t have to be perfect in their last 17 games, but they’ll probably have to go something like 12-5 to pull this off.
The major piece of good news here: Houston has 11 of its last 17 at home, and that includes all but one of its five games against elite clubs. The Rockets are only 17-13 at home; they’ll have to do much better starting now, obviously.
They have a chance to leap past Phoenix by sweeping their home-and-home with the Suns over the next six days, but even if they manage that, they still have to catch one team from the Denver/Portland/Memphis/New Orleans group.
If they’re alive in mid-April, they’ll be one of a few teams here hoping Dallas has wrapped up the No. 2 seed, since Houston plays host to the Mavs in their next-to-last game, on April 11.
Final Verdict: I’m not going to make any predictions yet, but the teams to watch appear to be Portland and New Orleans. For Phoenix or Houston (or, I suppose, Utah) to get into the playoffs, one of the four teams that would make it now have to fall into the lottery, and the Blazers and Hornets might be in the most danger of taking that plunge.
Of course, the fun is that one big win — one buzzer shot, one fourth-quarter rally — can change all of this, and things will shift on an almost hourly basis over the next five weeks. Enjoy.