The Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors are jockeying for the top two seeds. After them, it’s a battle royale for the remaining six playoff spots.
The NBA regular season ends in just more than four weeks. In other news, we still have no idea how the Western Conference’s playoff picture is going to shake out.
We know the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors will be the top two seeds, though not in which order. The Portland Trail Blazers are probably in, though their schedule looks comparatively tough and the margins are small. But, including the Blazers, eight teams are fighting for six spots. Those teams are all within 3.5 games of each other.
A bad week is the difference between the No. 3 seed and being out of the playoffs entirely in this environment. This is as tight among so many teams as it has been in years.
With that in mind, let’s reset the Western NBA playoff race as it stands. First, we deal with the battle for the No. 1 seed. Then we’ll do our best to sort out the mess behind it.
First, for those with tiny attention spans, the TL;DR version.
Houston should win the No. 1 seed. The Nuggets have the worst shot of making the playoffs due to a road-heavy schedule. The last spot looks like it will come down to the Spurs and Clippers. The Jazz should make it. But everyone wants to avoid the Nos. 7 and 8 seeds.
OK, now the (exceptionally) long version.
The battle for No. 1
The Rockets opened up a 2-game lead over the Warriors on Monday. Houston also has the tiebreaker after winning the season series, 2-1. So, essentially, the Warriors need to finish a game ahead of the Rockets to get that No. 1 seed. Right now, Golden State has 16 losses. Houston has 14. The Warriors need the Rockets to lose three games more than themselves the rest of the way.
Will the Rockets even lose three more games, though?
Houston has 15 games left, with six on the road and nine at home. Four of those road games are against teams in the West playoff race; the other two are against the feisty Lakers and the moribund Kings (that’s the season finale). The home games feature four teams out of the playoff chase. Given how tight the West playoff race has become, teams are going to be going all out every night. So there is some potential for defeat.
If Houston can sweep the non-playoff teams and go 7-2 against the others, they clinch No. 1 no matter what Golden State does. For every game above two they lose, they need Golden State to lose one of their own. So how many games can the Rockets reasonably expect the Warriors to lose?
Golden State has just 14 games left, evenly split between home and road. The away games feature four playoff or playoff-potential teams; the home games also have four matchups with playoff teams. The other six games — starring teams like the Kings, Suns, and Hawks — should be simple victories. Those other eight games include the Spurs in San Antonio, a pair against Indiana, a pair against Utah, the Bucks at home, the Thunder on the road, and the Pelicans in Oakland. Golden State could very easily sweep those. But given continued inconsistency of effort and questions about how quickly Stephen Curry will return, let’s chalk up one loss in there. That’d give Houston some breathing room.
Given their current advantage, you’d expect the Rockets to finish this out and claim the No. 1 seed. But both teams will be scoreboard watching for at least the next couple of weeks.
The Blazers are the hottest team in the West, riding Damian Lillard’s late-season explosion to a 10-game win streak. Portland has a four-game cushion on the teams in the Nos. 9 and 10 spots. This includes four games in the loss column. With just about 15 games left for each team, that should be enough. FiveThirtyEight’s projections have the Blazers at 97 percent to make the postseason.
Top plays from our 10th straight victory pic.twitter.com/edx6dEtap2
— Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) March 13, 2018
But the schedule looks quite tough for Portland. Ten of the Blazers’ 14 remaining games come against playoff-potential teams. The only “nights off” are a pair with the disastrous Grizzlies, a visit from the Pistons, and a game in Dallas. That’s pretty tough. The Blazers’ final four games of the season read like this: at Houston, at San Antonio, at Denver, vs. Utah. Portland has gone 10-10 against the other seven teams in the West chase, though the Blazers have been much better of late than early in the season. With seven games against that crew plus a pair against Houston remaining, there’s plenty of opportunity for losses.
New Orleans is currently No. 4 in the standings, with 11 of its 16 remaining games coming against playoff teams. The Pelicans have six more on the road, and five of those come against playoff or playoff-chase squads. New Orleans has a total of five likely wins remaining, and likely needs to pluck at least five more out of their hats. Weekend losses to the Wizards and Jazz don’t inspire tremendous confidence. Remember that six of the wins in the Pelicans’ recent 10-game streak came against non-playoff teams: New Orleans won’t have much of the low end to fatten up on the rest of the way. But the Pelicans are two up in the loss column over the teams in Nos. 9 and 10. They’ve lost tiebreakers to Denver, Minnesota, and Utah, and have the tiebreaker on Oklahoma City.
Minnesota has hung on without Jimmy Butler, and Sunday’s national TV win over the Warriors was a huge morale boost. It helped in the standings, too: the Timberwolves stayed knotted with the Thunder for No. 5 in the West with the victory. Minnesota has a massive tiebreaker edge, having won the advantage over LA, New Orleans, and Oklahoma City, having split with Portland, and having a good chance to still gain it over Denver and Utah. That’s especially helpful since Minnesota, with 29 losses, is only up one game over the teams currently in Nos. 9 and 10. With 14 games left, Minnesota has seven on the road and seven at home. Only four of the road games and four of the home games come against playoff-possible teams. That means the Timberwolves have six games against bad teams they should win. Splitting the other eight games evenly would get Minnesota to 49-33, which should get the Wolves in with breathing room. Thanks to that easy schedule and the tiebreaker situation, Minnesota is looking good for the playoffs.
How you feeling, Wolves fans? #AllEyesNorth pic.twitter.com/EC3qDSTiCI
— Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) March 11, 2018
Oklahoma City’s record is nearly identical to Minnesota. However, the Thunder have just two games left against non-playoff teams, fewer than the Wolves. That includes the next game — Atlanta on Tuesday. After that, Oklahoma City won’t face a team out of the playoff chase until April 11 in the season finale against Memphis. That 11-game run in between includes some winnable games, including a pair against Miami and critical games against LA, Denver, and New Orleans. But it also includes battles with Toronto, Boston, Houston, and Golden State. (And you know Houston and Golden State want to beat up on the Thunder to help knock them out of the playoff race.) During that 11-game run, we’re really going to find out what Oklahoma City is made of.
FiveThirtyEight’s projections currently have San Antonio with a slightly better chance of getting in than the Nuggets, and a slightly lower probability than the Clippers. But it’s close. The Spurs have 15 games left. San Antonio’s gone 4-11 over its last 15. If they do that the rest of the way, they aren’t making the playoffs. The good news is the Spurs have 10 at home remaining. The bad news is that eight of them are against playoff-chase teams. Four of the five road games are against teams in the chase or in the bracket, too. Yikesville. San Antonio has only won one of its past 11 games against playoff-chase teams (and that was Cleveland, who hasn’t exactly been inspiring). The Spurs need a complete turnaround over the next month to save their season. The good news is that it appears Kawhi Leonard may be returning to action this week.
LA is the current owner of the No. 7 spot by percentage points. The Clippers have 17 games left, with a whopping 10 on the road. But LA has been an above-average road team this season. Eight of those road games and six of the seven home games are against playoff-chase teams. There’s a somewhat brutal upper Midwest four-game road trip in there, too. With just three easy wins left on the table, the schedule just isn’t very kind to the Clippers. They’ve also already lost tiebreakers to Minnesota, Oklahoma City, and San Antonio, and need a win to avoid losing the tiebreaker to New Orleans. Do the Clippers have another shock left in them?
The Clippers’ saving grace might be Denver’s similarly brutal remaining schedule. The strength-of-schedule isn’t so bad: in fact, the Nuggets’ next three games are against the Lakers, Pistons, and Grizzlies. That had better be three wins. The problem is the Memphis game starts a seven-game road trip, five of which are against East playoff teams or the Thunder. Denver is a hideous 11-20 on the road this season. After that long trip, the Nuggets still have the Clippers and Wolves away from home. The Nuggets have just five games left at home, with four of the opponents in the playoff chase. Either Denver fixes it road problems, or it stands a solid chance of missing the playoffs again.
How is this for infuriating? On Jan. 22, Utah was in the No. 10 spot in the West. The Jazz have gone 18-2 since that date. And as of Monday … the Jazz were in the No. 10 spot in the West. Unbelievable. The Spurs’ loss on Monday did push Utah up to No. 8, for now.
The weather seemed to follow us around this past week
☁️ ☁️ ☁️
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) March 12, 2018
Utah is, as noted, crazy hot since Rudy Gobert came back for real. Nine of the team’s 15 games remaining are at home, where Utah has been really strong this season. More than half of the Jazz’s remaining games — eight of them — are against teams out of the playoff race, including all of the next five. (We’re counting the Pistons as done, because … well, have you watched the Pistons lately?) Utah should stay in the top eight going forward. This is, provided, something completely shocking doesn’t happen to the Jazz.
Getting into the playoff bracket is one goal for many of these teams. But there’s a huge incentive to get into the No. 6 seed or higher. Landing in Nos. 7 or 8 means a first-round sweep, in all likelihood. (You can imagine few scenarios in which any of these teams peel a game off of the Rockets or Warriors, but roughly zero in which the series are actually competitive.) These teams in the big chase all believe they can beat one another. But to get to face one of the other teams, they need to avoid Houston and Golden State like the plague.
So don’t expect teams to ease up if they line up a playoff spot if there’s a chance they can fall into or avoid the bottom two seeds.