There is no telling how things are going to shape out in the West with five — maybe six — teams in position to win 50 games and tie the second-seeded Pacers in the East. The West is just better, excluding Miami, so it’s more fun to look at how their final month is going to play out. So many delicious matchups to take in as the rest of the country takes in the madness of March in the amateur realm.
The Western Conference is a two-man race right now for the top spot with last year’s Western Conference Finalists, the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, jockeying to see who will get the No. 1 seed come playoff time (and possibly the No. 1 overall if Miami ever falters, which after last night’s heroics is anybody’s guess). Then we have the race for No. 3, with the Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and streaking Denver Nuggets all basically even at five and a half games behind the Spurs and three games behind the Thunder. The Nuggets are in the midst of their own 13-game winning streak even as its gone understandably over-looked by the Heat parade. If Denver gets the three or even the four seed, they’re gonna give fits to whomever they match up against in the first round because their homecourt advantage in the thin air of the Pepsi Center will be a decisive advantage.
The Eastern Conference was easier because they already have eight teams locked in, but the Western Conference is better and they have more teams competing for their eight spots, with Utah, Dallas, and Portland looking up at the Lakers in the eighth and final spot. Making things even harder is the lack of easy opponents for most of these squads over their remaining 13-15 games. It’s gonna be tight, and it could come down to the last day for many of them.
*** *** ***
1. SAN ANTONIO (52-16)
When I first looked at their remaining schedule, I thought they might be screwed, but maybe not as much as imagined. Working Tony Parker back from his high ankle sprain is important too, so watch for that in the coming week. They’ll handle Utah at home and the Rockets on the road. If Denver hasn’t lost by the time they get to the AT&T Center in San Antonio, that’s where their streak will end as the Spurs have only lost four games at home all year. They’ll handle the Clippers at home too, but Miami will get the win (anybody picking against Miami right now is just trolling you). They’ll take Orlando, but winning in Oklahoma City will be really hard (even if Denver pulled it off a couple nights ago). They’ll handle Atlanta at home, but when they go to Denver, the Nuggets will have their revenge for possibly ending their winning streak earlier. After the loss to Denver, even though Popovich will keep sitting his starters to let them rest up for the playoffs, I don’t see them losing to anyone except possibly a pissed off Kobe and his Lakers team. All told, they’ll finish their remaining 14 games at 10-4 for a final record of 62-20 and the top spot in the West.
14 games remaining: UTA, @HOU, DEN, LAC, MIA*, @MEM*, (ORL), @OKC*, ATL, @DEN*, (SAC), @LAL, @GSW, (MIN)
2. OKLAHOMA CITY (50-19)
The Thunder might have the easiest remaining schedule of the top five teams in the West. Of their remaining 13 games, six come against non-playoff teams, and of the remaining seven playoff team games, only a home date with San Antonio and a trip to Indiana’s Bankers Life Fieldhouse looks intimidating. I think they’ll win both of those games, too. Durant‘s exceptional shooting has tapered off a bit and Kevin Martin has stumbled recently, but they’ll pick things up and be rearing to go when the playoffs arrive. The only time I can see them faltering is when they go on the road in April against playoff contenders Utah, Portland and Golden State. They’ll lose two of those three away games, probably in Golden State and Portland (the Jazz have looked awful since deciding not to trade Millsap or Jefferson at the trade deadline). So with those two losses, the Thunder will finish 11-2, for a final record of 61-21, just missing out on equaling the top-seeded Spurs’ record.
13 games remaining: (@ORL), (POR), (WAS), (@MIN), @MIL, SAS, @IND, NYK, @UTA, @GSW*, (@POR*), (SAC), MIL
3. MEMPHIS (46-21)
The Grizzlies have been 17-5 since dealing Rudy Gay to the Raptors to shed salaries and pick up Tayshaun Prince in the process. It seems their new hire, John Hollinger, was right and they’ve been able to get wins despite the lack of Gay’s offense (which has been even less efficient in Toronto). So where will the Grizzlies finish after their exciting OT win over OKC last night? I think they’ll win down in New Orleans, and back at home when Boston comes to visit. They’ll win in Madison Square Garden because even though ‘Melo seems healthy; the Knicks are still discombobulated on the road. But when Houston visits they’ll get upset at home when Harden, Lin or Parsons go off from deep and their lack of three-point shooting is exposed. They’ll win in Minnesota and successfully defend their home floor against visiting San Antonio, who they always play tough. They’ll win in Portland, but when they go to the Staples Center, Kobe and the fellas will be fighting for their playoff lives, and they’ll fall in a hailstorm of Kobe threes and Nash pick-n-roll dishes to Howard. They next head to Sacramento, which they’ll win and then back home to feast on the lowly Bobcats. They’ll get their revenge on Houston before losing their next two to a visiting Clippers team who didn’t handle their pressure defense on the perimeter in their last game, but who still have Chris Paul who probably took that loss personally. A miraculous game from Dirk will give Dallas the victory in Dallas as the playoffs approach. They’ll win their last game when Utah comes to visit, which means they’ll go 11-4 over their next 15 and finish at 57-25 on the year.
15 games remaining: (@NOH), BOS, (@WAS), @NYK, HOU*, (@MIN), SAS, (@POR), @LAL*, (@SAC) (CHA), @HOU, LAC*, @DAL*, UTA
4. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (47-22)
Thankfully for long-suffering Clippers fans they didn’t lose another winnable game last night against Philadelphia, like they did two nights ago against lowly Sacramento. They’ll beat the visiting Nets on Friday, but when they go into Dallas, a streaking Mavericks team will beat them. They’ll beat New Orleans before going to San Antonio to get blown out. Things won’t be much better when they fall to Houston the very next night. They’ll pull themselves together to win their two against Indiana and Phoenix at home. They’ll win a tight game against their Staples Center rivals that will have everyone on Twitter amped up at what a tremendous rivalry Los Angeles has become before others say the word rivalry is being misused since the Lakers are the clear victors throughout history. They’ll beat Minnesota at home and New Orleans on the road before their five-game win streak comes to an end in Memphis. They’ll recover in time to win their final two games against Portland and Sacramento to finish their final 13 games at 9-4 and one game behind Memphis overall at 56-26 on the year.
13 games remaining: BRK, @DAL*, (@NOR), @SAS*, @HOU*, IND, (PHO), LAL, (MIN), (@NOR), @MEM*, (POR), (@SAC)
5. DENVER (47-22)
The hottest team in basketball not named the Miami Heat. So how do I predict who they’ll fall to since I capitulated making that choice for Miami? I think they’ll beat Philadelphia and Sacramento at home and then stretch their winning streak to sixteen games by getting a tough win in New Orleans, but Popovich will have something to slow them down in San Antonio where their streak will end. Next, they’ll have Brooklyn at home, which they’ll win easily before heading to Utah where they’ll be upset by a hot shooting Gordon Hayward and Mo Williams. They’ll beat Dallas at home and Houston too before San Antonio comes into their house. They’ll avenge their loss in San Antonio before going on the road in two of their last four games and losing both, but they’ll finish with the same record as the Grizzlies at 57-25 after going 10-3 in their final 13 games. All their losses will come on the road, where they’re just 17-19 so far on the season. Since they’ll be tied with the Grizzlies, it’ll go to the tiebreaker. Denver would be second in the Northwest behind Oklahoma City and Memphis would be second in Southwest behind San Antonio, so the tiebreaker would go to the victor of the season series. Denver leads that series three games to one, so they’d inherit the three seed from Memphis, and the Grizzlies will fall to the four spot and face the Clippers in a rematch of last year’s exciting opening round series.
13 games remaining: (PHI), (SAC), (@NOR), @SAS*, BRK, @UTA*, DAL, HOU, SAS, @DAL*, POR, @MIL, (PHX)