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NBA playoff picture: Predictions for wild Western Conference race | NBA

We can, at least, write the Rockets and Warriors into the Western Conference playoff slate, in ink. The rest, however, requires a No. 2 pencil.

In evaluating how the final month will play out in the West, with four games separating the third seed from the 10th, let’s start by sizing up where the teams stand now. The Trail Blazers are in the best situation, at 41-26, and have a reasonable schedule remaining. At the bottom are the Spurs, whose situation looks desperate — but who are bolstered by a favorable, home-heavy schedule from here out. 

MORE: Top NBA Draft prospects to watch during March Madness

Here’s a basic look at the way the schedule shapes up…

Seed Team Record Games Home Road B-to-Bs Opp. %
3 Trail Blazers 41-26 15 7 8 2 .538
4 Thunder 40-29 13 6 7 1 .573
5 Pelicans* 38-28 16 10 6 4* .549
6 Timberwolves 39-29 14 7 7 3 .474
7 Clippers 36-29 17 7 10 3 .557
8 Jazz 37-30 15 9 6 2 .489
9 Nuggets 37-30 15 5 10 1 .529
10 Spurs 37-30 15 10 5 1 .554

(*New Orleans has two back-to-backs, and one three-in-a-row stretch, which is counted as two back-to-backs.)

Of course, nothing is that simple. Some teams have injured players coming back, some have players mired in deep slumps and some have terrible records on the road, or even at home. With that in mind, let’s dig into all 10 playoff contenders beyond Houston and Golden State, and see how the upcoming slate combined with recent performance should leave these teams when the regular season ends. 

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Trail Blazers: Riding high into playoffs

The stakes: The Trail Blazers, after a slow start, are eager to build on the progress they’ve made in the last two years. It would take a drastic collapse in the final 15 games for the Blazers to miss the playoffs. Instead, their focus is on maintaining one of the top four seeds and earning the home-court edge.

The key: Damian Lillard has been outstanding during the Blazers’ nine-game winning streak, ranking fifth in the league with a plus/minus of 11.0. He is leading the league in 3-point attempts in that span (10.2 per game) and making 4.4 of them, which also leads the league.

Red flag: The schedule is deceptively difficult. At .538, the remaining opponents don’t have an overwhelming winning percentage, and the remaining 15 games go seven at home and eight no the road. But among the home games are Cleveland, Houston, Boston, the Clippers and Utah. And the road games are not sprinkled throughout — there are two extended trips, one of three games and one of four.

Outlook: Starting with a four-game cushion and on a hot streak, it’s pretty safe to put the Blazers into the playoffs. Even if they only won eight of their final 15, they’d still be at 49 wins and easily in the mix. Most likely, they’ll win 10 games or so to finish the year, be in the 51-win range and earn the No. 3 seed.

First-round matchup: No. 3 Portland vs. No. 6 Utah

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Thunder: The Paul George problem

The stakes: Well, we know what’s at stake for this team. Paul George will be a free agent this summer, and while there has been some hope that he can be talked into remaining with the Thunder, that all could change dramatically if OKC can’t even make the playoffs as currently constructed.

The key: A strong finish from George is going to be needed here, and that’s never quite been his strength. In his career, George’s post-All-Star scoring drops from 19.3 points to 17.3 points, and his 3-point shooting goes from 39.0 percent to 35.0 percent. So far, George has disappointed, dropping from 22.5 points to 19.1, and seeing his 3-point shooting go from 43.3 percent before the break to 28.2 since.

Red flag: The Thunder have an absolutely brutal schedule ahead. It’s not just that their upcoming opponents have the best winning percentage among those teams fighting for these playoff spots — it’s that the schedule is bookended by games against Atlanta and Memphis. Other than those two,
OKC has 11 games against teams in the playoff hunt, and those teams have a winning mark of .627.   

Outlook: The schedule is overwhelming. OKC will be lucky to win five of the 11 games against playoff teams, plus the two against Atlanta and Memphis. That would get them to 47 wins, which is probably good for the No. 5 or 6 seed, given that OKC has the tiebreaker over Utah (though not over New Orleans).

First-round matchup: No. 4 Minnesota vs. No. 5 Oklahoma City

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Pelicans: There’s no place like home (unfortunately)

The stakes: No team has more invested in a trip to the postseason than the Pelicans. The big trade for DeMarcus Cousins last year allowed a reset for coach Alvin Gentry and GM Dell Demps, and with Cousins out because of a torn Achilles, the Pels still need to find a way to hang onto a postseason slot.

The key: Anthony Davis has been incredible for the Pelicans down the stretch, averaging 34.6 points and 13.4 rebounds with 3.7 blocks in his last 11 games. He missed a game with an ankle injury, though, and his health will be worth monitoring over New Orleans’ final 16 games.

Red flag: Because of a roof problem at the Smoothie King Center, the Pelicans had to kick a game back to late March, which leaves them with a crowded schedule, including a run of three games in three nights from March 21-23. The happy news should be that 10 of their final 16 games are at home, but the Pelicans are a terrible home team, going just 17-14 at the Smoothie, and 21-14 on the road.

Outlook: They’ve got to get some wins at home, or the whole thing falls apart. Even with Davis’ greatness, they’re probably looking at a split of their remaining 16 games, or something close to it. That will put New Orleans at about 46 wins, and the bet here is that will get them the No. 7 seed.

First-round matchup: No. 2 Golden State vs. No. 7 New Orleans

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Timberwolves: Surviving without Jimmy Butler

The stakes: In trading for Jimmy Butler last summer, the Wolves established the playoffs — and perhaps even the second round — as their goal. That’s a big one, since Minnesota has a postseason drought going back to 2004.

The key: The Wolves’ win over the Warriors was big in that it stopped a four-game losing streak, as the team sets up for another tough week (at Washington and San Antonio, then home against the Rockets and Clippers). Minnesota just needs to survive this stretch — two wins would be great — to get to the very soft part of the schedule, and hopefully get Butler back on the floor. Minnesota has the easiest remaining schedule of West contenders.

Red flag: As always with Thibodeau-coached teams, it’s wear-and-tear. The Timberwolves bench is easily the worst among all playoff teams, with a net rating of minus-4.8, 25th in the league. Andre Wiggins leads the NBA in minutes played, Karl-Anthony Towns is working on a third straight season without missing a game and Taj Gibson is a week away from establishing a new career-high in minutes at age 32. Butler likely will be out at least another two weeks, if not longer, and the Wolves’ lack of depth will be tested.

Outlook: Even without Butler, the Wolves should close out their final 14 at better than .500 — they have six games against non-playoff teams, including two against Memphis. The guess here is 9-5 to finish, which leaves them with 48 wins and home-court advantage in the first round, with the No. 4 seed.

First-round matchup: No. 4 Minnesota vs. No. 5 Oklahoma City

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Clippers: Cloudy future in LA

The stakes: Who knows what will become of the Clippers in the coming months? Doc Rivers could be gone, and so could free-agent center DeAndre Jordan. They’ve pieced together a mish-mashed roster that has overperformed, and Rivers should get some credit for that. But a trip to the NBA lottery could be the impetus to moving on from Rivers and changing directions.

The key: The Clippers are home just two times for the rest of the month, and they will play nine games on the road. LA has been a decent road team this season, at 16-15, but has been really good since late December, with a 10-3 mark in road games. Especially effective for the Clippers in that stretch: Lou Williams, averaging 28.1 points and 6.5 assists.

Red flag: The Clippers have not been a very good perimeter shooting team this year, but they’ve been sinking since the Blake Griffin trade. They’re shooting 34.0 percent from the 3-point arc since the deal was made, after having shot 35.6 percent before it. Clearly, the attention Griffin got from defenders had an impact. Before the deal, 17.6 percent of the Clippers’ 3s were wide open (no defender within six feet), which was 16th in the league. After, that has dropped to 12.5 percent, last in the league.

Outlook: The case could be made that the Clips will finish with 10 wins down the stretch, but with a packed 17-game slate remaining, fatigue is going to cost them a game or two they should win. If they close at 8-9, they land at 44 wins, short of the postseason.

First-round matchup: None

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Jazz: All about the defense

The stakes: When the Jazz lost Gordon Hayward to free agency last summer, the assumption might have been that they’d be out of the playoff picture. But the play of rookie Donovan Mitchell, new point guard Ricky Rubio and mainstay center Rudy Gobert has kept the Jazz afloat and given them a chance to prove doubters wrong.

The key: The Jazz have gone 18-2 in their last 20 games, and they’ve done it by getting back to their bread-and-butter under coach Quin Snyder: defense. During this Utah run, the team’s defensive rating has been 95.8 points per 100 possessions, which not only ranks first in that span, it ranks first by a huge margin (No. 2 in that span is Toronto, at 101.6).

Utah has the second-easiest remaining schedule, and should be able to suffocate many of its upcoming foes defensively. Of its last 15 games, eight come against teams that rank from 21-30 in offensive efficiency, and only four games are against teams that rank in the top 10. Plus, the Jazz have been incredible in the clutch. They’re 8-0 in their last eight clutch games (within five points with five minutes to play), with an offensive rating of 116.9 and a defensive rating of 65.0, for a net of 51.9.

Red flag: As good as the defense has been, there should be some concern about the offense. Utah has averaged 98.4 points since the All-Star break, shooting 44.9 percent from the field and 32.2 percent from the 3-point line. Mitchell has trailed off since the break (41.7 percent from the field, 32.1 percent from the 3-point line), and Rubio’s brief spell of good shooting has broken (38.9 percent and 30.8 percent from 3-point range since the break). Jae Crowder (37.1 percent and 32.4 percent) has struggled in his 12 games with the Jazz.

Outlook: The Jazz play five straight opponents with records under .500, and if they take advantage of that, they’ll firm up their postseason slot. Utah should wrap up with about 10 wins in its last 15 games, leaving the Jazz at 47 wins, and probably with the No. 6 seed, though Nos. 4 and 5 are in sight.

First-round matchup: No. 3 Portland vs. No. 6 Utah

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Nuggets: Life on the road isn’t easy

The stakes: This is coach Mike Malone’s fifth year as an NBA coach, and while most would agree he has proven to be qualified, he has yet to bring a team to the postseason. His job is not on the line here, but he will be in the final year of his contract next season, and there is some pressure to show results.

The key: The Nuggets are 11-5 since the start of February, and have posted an offensive efficiency rating of 116.7 in that span, best in the NBA. Star center Nikola Jokic has been especially good over those 16 games, averaging 19.8 points, 10.5 rebounds and 8.1 assists, while shooting 56.5 percent from the field and 53.1 percent from the 3-point line.

Red flag: Ten of Denver’s final 15 come on the road, and that includes a brutal seven-game trip that will decide the team’s playoff fate. At 11-20, the Nuggets have the worst road record of any potential playoff team in the league.

Outlook: Given the difficulty of their closing slate, it’s hard to imagine the Nuggets winning more than seven games from here, and that’s optimistic. That would put them at 44 wins, and that’s probably not enough to get to the playoffs.

First-round matchup: None

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Spurs: Has anyone seen Kawhi Leonard?

The stakes: The Spurs have missed the postseason just five times in their history, going back to the ABA in 1967, and have made 21 straight playoff appearances. No one’s job is in jeopardy, but you’d have to wonder about the future of the team, especially with injured star Kawhi Leonard slated for free agency in 2019.

The key: It all comes down to the return of Leonard, expected this week. He’s played only sporadically in nine games this season, the injury to his right quad causing a raft of consternation within the organization and leading to unhappiness between Leonard and the Spurs brass. A healthy and productive Leonard is San Antonio’s only shot at keeping the playoff streak alive.

Red flag: The Spurs have been slipping since the start of February, going 3-11 and seeing their makeshift lineups start to wear down. Their net efficiency has been minus-2.1 since then, which ranks 20th in the league, and they’ve been miserable in close-game situations. According to the NBA’s clutch stats (which apply to games within five points with five minutes to go), the Spurs are 1-7 in clutch games since Feb. 1, with an offensive rating of 85.4 and a defensive rating of 140.5 — the net rating in those situations, minus-55.1, is worst in the league. That might be too much even for Leonard to fix.

Outlook: San Antonio starts with a six-game homestand, and the team will need four wins to keep its hopes alive. If that happens, the Spurs should be able to squeeze four more wins out of the final nine games, if Leonard is healthy. That would give them 45 wins and, the guess here is, the No. 8 seed.

First-round matchup: No. 1 Houston vs. No. 8 San Antonio


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