The East may be decided, but over in the Western Conference there is still plenty to play for with less than 10 games left in the regular season.
The races for first, third and eighth in the conference are set to come down to the wire and could be decided as late as the last day of the season. There is no such thing as an easy road ahead for any of the teams involved, particularly the winner of the eight seed, whose reward will be to face the forever consistent and difficult San Antonio Spurs or Kevin Durant.
Let’s take a look at who is who in this battle and what they face ahead if they’re going to make the postseason or a higher seed.
THE EIGHT SEED
The battle to get the eight seed is now down to three teams; Dallas, Los Angeles and Utah. Clearly, the Lakers would own the spot if it were decided by talent, but the schedule plays a major factor and with each of these squads having a different number of games on their docket, it’s completely up in the air at the moment who will be there at the end of the month.
Let’s start with Utah, the owner of the tie breaker with both teams thanks to their success in the season series. The Jazz losing to Denver last night gives the Lakers the opening they needed to grab a slim lead. Utah is now a half game behind Los Angeles with six games left on their schedule. Amongst the opponents are the playoff bound Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder and the Memphis Grizzlies on the final night of the season.
The Jazz will need to win at least four of the remaining games, but a back-to-back against Minnesota and tomorrow’s matchup with New Orleans will be no walk in the park. With three at home and three on the road it gets no less complicated, but the Jazz will need to be a game ahead by the time they face Memphis in their final game.
The Lakers have seven games remaining and have a significantly more difficult schedule. Over the next two weeks, the team will face the Grizzlies, Clippers, Warriors, Spurs and Rockets. Combined, the Lakers own a 3-11 record against those teams this season. The only consolation for the purple and gold is that five of the seven games are at home, where the team is 24-12 this season. Having to finish a game ahead of the Jazz means that every game from here on out is a playoff game for the Lakers, long before they earn a trip to San Antonio.
Dallas is the long shot in all of this. Their loss to the Lakers on Tuesday puts a big dent in their ability to make the postseason, but just two and a half games back, they’re not out of it. Anything less than running the table won’t cut it for the Mavs, something that would seem possible if not for two games against Denver and a battle against Memphis in their second to last game.
Everyone else on the Mavs schedule is someone they can beat, but with consistency still their biggest issue it doesn’t look good for Dirk Nowitzki and company. Odds are the Mavs will done by Apr. 12.
Prediction: The Jazz will go 3-3 in their next three games and allow the Lakers to slip by them. Los Angeles will ride inspiring performances from Kobe Bryant on his home floor and the team wins the chance to play San Antonio by going 4-3 in their final seven games.
THE THREE SEED
The Nuggets, Clippers and Grizzlies have been duking it out for the opportunity to avoid San Antonio in the first round for a while now, but Denver currently leads this group just as they lead the league in several statistical categories.
The Nuggets schedule from here on out includes seven games, five of which take place at the Pepsi Center where they are 33-3 this season. Granted, the Nuggets face some tough games against Houston, San Antonio and Dallas twice, but they have the chance to separate themselves from the competition over the next two weeks and seal home court in the first round.
The Clippers have just six games left on the schedule and two opponents that are notable making them a favorite to steal the three seed. If they can beat the Lakers and Grizzlies, it’s possible that the Clips can take their last six games in a row and essentially seal up at least the fourth spot with a win over Memphis.
Memphis faces a tough seven game schedule to close out the season that will provide them with plenty of tests as they try to claw their way out of the fifth seed. With games against the Lakers, Rockets, Clippers, Mavericks and Jazz, Lionel Hollins’ team has a tougher road than the teams they’re chasing. Having already set a franchise record for wins, it may be better for the Grizzlies to rest key players and focus on the postseason.
Prediction: I suspect that this portion of the standings will finish as it stands with Denver going 6-1 the rest of the way and clinching the No. 3 seed. The Clippers will go 5-1 clinching the four and home court against Memphis in the first round, but home court may not matter much in that series as both teams have a winning record. Denver meanwhile, will see the three seed as a priority to avoid San Antonio, a team they have struggled against with record of 1-2 against the Spurs this season.
Tonight’s game between San Antonio and Oklahoma City is massive in that Oklahoma City, who has a game in hand with eight games remaining, can close the gap to within a half game of San Antonio. Of those eight games, only two are against non-playoff teams, but luckily for them, the Spurs face a similar schedule.
Facing each of these teams is a tough choice. The No. 1 seed gets home court advantage throughout the playoffs, but they also will likely face a dangerous Laker team in the first round that if its play ever lives up to its talent, could quickly become a contender. San Antonio will only have three of their seven remaining games at home, while OKC gets four.
Prediction: The winner of tonight’s game win’s the Western Conference’s No.1 seed.