The bottom-half of the Western Conference playoff picture is only separated by half a game.
As the regular season winds down, the playoff picture becomes ever murkier. After Wednesday’s games, only a half game separates the Utah Jazz at 5th in the West from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 8th. That’s half a bracket sandwiched together into nothing more substantial than the quirk of who has played 71 games so far, and who has played 72.
I’ve been spending most of my time talking about two-team tiebreakers, but with the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, and Oklahoma City Thunder all tied at 42-30, I should take a moment to go over the tiebreaker procedure when more than two teams are tied.
- Better winning percentage in games against each other
- Better winning percentage against teams in own division (only if tied teams are in same division).
- Better winning percentage against teams in own conference.
The good news is the Spurs are guaranteed to win this tiebreaker if it involves both the Thunder and the Clippers. The Spurs are 4-3 against the other two teams, the Clippers are 4-4, and the Thunder are 3-4. There are no more games scheduled between these three teams for the rest of the regular season.
I like to keep the narrative of this article slightly different with each iteration as to keep it from becoming too redundant. In this article I’m going to focus on the teams ranked 5th-8th in the conference, as those are the teams the Spurs need to get past if they are to set their sights higher.
5. Utah Jazz
If you’ve been paying attention to Spurs Watch over the past couple weeks, you know the Utah Jazz are in great position to continue their ascension up the Western Conference standings (or at the very least hold off those teams behind them). They are an excellent team playing very well, and more importantly, their remaining strength of schedule is by far the easiest out of all the teams jockeying for playoff positioning in the West.
The Jazz are winners of five straight, with those games coming against the Phoenix Suns, Minnesota Timberwolves, Brooklyn Nets (OK, they aren’t bad), Washington Wizards, and New York Knicks. Their next seven games are against the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, Suns (twice), Los Angeles Lakers, Wizards, and Charlotte Hornets. They will likely win the majority of those games, and the Jazz own the tiebreaker against the Spurs, so making up ground against them is going to be very difficult.
My prediction: Jazz go 9-2 the rest of the way, finish 50-32 overall, and end up in 4th or 5th place in the West.
Note: I’m pretty certain the Blazers and Jazz will be playing each other in the first round of the playoffs, but who will have home-court is going to come down to the wire. The Blazers have a two-game advantage, but the Jazz are likely to own the tiebreaker due to a better in-division record. Outside of a late season home-and-home against the Nuggets, the Blazers also have a relatively easy remaining schedule.
6. San Antonio Spurs
I talked about this at the beginning of the article, but the Spurs are currently tied with the Clippers and Thunder with a record of 42-30. The Spurs own the tiebreaker should all of these three teams end up tied at the end of the regular season. The Spurs are also guaranteed to win any tiebreaker with the Thunder, and they currently hold the tiebreaker with the Clippers due to the Spurs having a better conference record.
Things might get a bit dicey over the next few days, as the Spurs go on the road to play both the Houston Rockets and the Boston Celtics. If the Spurs end up losing both of those games, they could find themselves in 8th place in the West come Monday.
There is light at the end of the tunnel, however. After this weekend, the Spurs remaining schedule includes the Hornets, Cleveland Cavaliers (twice), Sacramento Kings, Hawks, Denver Nuggets, and Dallas Mavericks.
My prediction: Spurs go 6-4 the rest of the way, finish 48-34 overall, and end up 6th place in the West.
7. Los Angeles Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers have played seven out of their last eight games at home, and their one road game was in the same arena against the Lakers. During this span, the Clippers have gone 7-1 and have refused to fade into the sunset. Lou Williams continues to shine in the clutch, and Montrezl Harrell continues to be one of the most underrated players in the NBA.
The Clippers are about to begin a four-game road trip, but I wouldn’t expect them to start a losing streak anytime soon. Their next six games are against the Cavaliers (twice), Knicks, Timberwolves, and Memphis Grizzlies, with their only game against a playoff team coming against the Milwaukee Bucks. Things do get tougher at the end, as the Clippers face the Houston Rockets, Lakers, Golden State Warriors, and Jazz to close out the regular season. Three of those four games are at home though.
My prediction: Clippers go 6-4 the rest of the way, finish 48-34 overall, and end up 7th place in the West (after losing the tiebreaker to the Spurs).
8. Oklahoma City Thunder
How the mighty have fallen. It wasn’t too long ago that the Thunder were 3rd in the West and everybody was talking about them having the best chance at defeating the Warriors in the playoffs. They have now lost four in a row, and despite some strong play at times, they can’t seem to find the consistency required to win close games.
It doesn’t get a whole lot easier moving forward, as the Thunder still have games against the Toronto Raptors (who they just lost to in overtime on Wednesday), Indiana Pacers, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, Rockets, and Bucks. Their other four games are against the Grizzlies, Mavericks, Timberwolves, and Lakers, which certainly are not guaranteed wins.
My prediction: Thunder go 5-5 the rest of the way, finish 47-35 overall, and end up 8th place in the West (after losing the tiebreaker to the Spurs).
I didn’t mean for this to happen, but it looks like I expect the final standings in the bottom-half of the West to look identical to what they look like on Wednesday. I think factoring in current form and remaining strength of schedule supports these beliefs. Unfortunately, a 6th place finish in the standings would likely mean a first round bout with the Rockets.
Source: Pounding The Rock