The West at the Wire

Every season, some element of the western conference playoff race stays tense all the way down to the end. This year, there are four races, any of which might be decided on the last day. With the Rockets embroiled in one of those contests, what will the last few weeks of the season look like for the brutal west?

At the top of the heap sit the San Antonio Spurs, a tenuous game and a half ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder. These two teams will meet for the fourth and final time in Oklahoma City on April 4th. The Spurs won two of the first three games, meaning that a Spurs victory would not only move them another game up on the Thunder, but definitively hand them the tiebreaker, in which case the first in the west would be all but assured. If the Thunder win, however, matters get dicey. The Thunder have a somewhat easier schedule as well as a very good chance of taking the tie, depending on how their conference records shake out. Don’t be surprised if the Spurs go all out against the Memphis Grizzlies and the OKC Thunder this week in order to be able to rest later.

Somehow, the races only get tighter than this. The Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies are all battling for the privilege of not facing each other in the first round. A mere one game separates Denver and Los Angeles, with Memphis sitting a half game between either one. The Clippers are a win away from securing the division from Golden State, meaning that they’re assured at least fourth, no matter how they finish. Since they team with more wins gets home court advantage in all series, however, this doesn’t affect much, as they can’t realistically do poorly enough to fall to sixth. Any of these teams could plausibly sweep or go 7-1 on their remaining 8 teams, so this race in anything but over. The Nuggets own tiebreakers over both other teams, and the Clippers have a chance to secure their tiebreaker over the Grizzlies on April 13th. It’s not implausible that this might go all the way down to April 17th.

A race that’s getting less attention but is somehow even tighter is the two-team struggle for the sixth seed. While the Golden State Warriors have a game and a half lead on the Houston Rockets, the Rockets have that tiebreaker, and have an extremely easy remaining schedule. Today they host the Orlando Magic, a team which they’re heavily favored to beat. After that, Houston has only three games left against teams with a winning record, and one of those is the Lakers, who are inconsistent at best. With The Warriors holding a one game lead, and a last eight games only marginally harder, the Warriors need to get about 48 wins total to feel comfortable with the 6th. While that’s on the table, it’s entirely possible, if not likely that both teams could enter April 17th with 46 wins. If the final game of the season becomes a must-win for Houston to avoid the two seed, that has huge implications for the last playoff race out west.

The Los Angeles Lakers, Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks are all trying for one spot, the eighth and final playoff berth. The Portland Trail Blazers are technically still alive, but are extremely unlikely to make it in. The Jazz retook their place in the playoff seeds recently, as they own the tiebreaker over the Lakers. They also have the tie on Dallas. The Mavs and Lakers play a huge game tomorrow, as the Lakers would get that tiebreaker and a game advantage with a win. If the Mavs were to win, the entire race would be thrown into chaos, making that last game of the season potentially the deciding factor. With the hardest remaining schedule of the three teams, the this might actually be the best they can hope for. If the April 17th game against the Rockets doesn’t determine their fate, it’s probably already been sealed as a 9th seed. In that case, Houston’s level of motivation on April 17th may be one of the more important factors for several teams in the west.

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Orlando Magic @ Houston Rockets on 4/1/2013