The NBA’s Western Conference is coming down to a two-team race for the top seed and a bloodbath in constant flux for the remaining six playoff spots. As of today, eight teams have eyes on those six spots, with just four games separating #3 (Portland) from #10 (Utah) with about 20 games left on the calendar. Remarkably, seeds #4-8 are within a game and a half of each other.
A bad week can send a team tumbling down the standings and into jeopardy of falling out of it completely. Minnesota, on a slide since Jimmy Butler‘s injury, and San Antonio, battling injuries to Kawhi Leonard and others, know this firsthand. Of course the opposite is true as well. Portland and New Orleans have shot up the standings with six-game and eight-game winning streaks, respectively. All ten of these teams boast a positive point differential on the season, contrasted with just six such teams in the Eastern Conference.
So given the daily drama and unusual nature of this race, we’re going to do a somewhat daily West update at DotB down the season’s homestretch. We’ll take a snapshot of where each team stands and look at big upcoming games, potential roadblocks, interesting trends and make some predictions. With that, here is where the West playoff picture stands on March 5, 2018:
View from the top: Will the Rockets ever lose again? James Harden and Chris Paul have led Houston to 15 straight wins after a nailbiter at home against Boston on Saturday. The Rockets have seven players averaging double-digit points, ran first in offensive rating, free throw rate, three-point attempt rate, three-pointers made and offensive rebounding. Perhaps even more impressive? Mike D’Antoni’s squad ranks eighth in defensive rating. Don’t sleep on the Warriors though, who are keeping pace since the All-Star break and I think will still pull out the 1-seed when it’s all said and done.
The gauntlet: Look out for the Blazers! On a six-game winning streak and 8-1 stretch, Portland is squarely in the third slot after recent huge wins over Minny, Utah, OKC and Golden State. Damian Lillard is cooking at 35 points per game over his last eight. Keeping pace with the Blazers is yet another team on a 5+ game winning streak, the Pelicans. Boogie Cousins‘ achilles injury devastated me, as he and Anthony Davis had really been putting it together. It as exciting basketball and like everybody else, I figured the Pels playoff chances were again shot when Boogie went down. Someone forgot to tell AD, who responded by becoming the hottest player in the league. I’m not sure they keep going like this, but I’m not willing to bet against this super-powered version of the Brow. The Timberwolves, on the other hand, have not responded as well to the loss of a star. Butler has arguably been their most important player this season, especially late in games. They’re 1-3 since he went down, if you count the loss to Houston in which he tore his meniscus. Minnesota’s dropped big games to Portland and Utah in their last two, completely falling apart in the fourth quarter against the Blazers. Andrew Wiggins needs to fill the void with Butler likely out for the rest of this playoff run. That fact alone makes me think they are the most at-risk team in the top eight. Perhaps the second most at-risk squad is the Spurs, 2-8 in their last 10 and finally feeling the effects of not having Kawhi. LaMarcus Aldridge could return tonight to give them a needed boost. The Spurs lost at home to the lowly Lakers on Saturday without him. Nipping at San Antonio’s heels are the Thunder and Nuggets. OKC has been a disappointment for me this year, but I think they have a run left in them. If they’re going to, it will be against one of the league’s toughest March/April schedules. Saturday’s loss to the Blazers hurt and they turn right around to host Houston tomorrow in a game I’ll be eyeing closely. As for Denver, keep an eye on them over the next two weeks. Denver’s schedule is gracious; their next seven opponents are averaging a 25-37 record on the year. This is the spot where a talented young team should take advantage, especially given the troubles of the three teams ahead of them in the standings. Coach Michael Malone needs to figure out the fourth quarter closing lineup: Jamal Murray should be on the court to end games with Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap and Will Barton.
Outside looking in: The Clippers continue to hang around after the Blake Griffin trade and Avery Bradley‘s injury. A big comeback win over Denver had them in the top eight briefly. An important home matchup with the Pelicans looms tomorrow. The Jazz rode an 11-game winning streak back into relevance. It’s hard to believe they sit just two games out of the playoffs, yet here we are. It may come down to whether rookie Donovan Mitchell can give them enough offense to complement their 4th-ranked defense down the stretch.
Tonight’s relevant games: Memphis @ San Antonio – DotB pick: Spurs in a rout.
Orlando @ Utah: Jazz in another rout.
Portland @ LA Lakers: Sneaky tough game for Rip City. I’ll take the Lakers in an upset.