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)
6. GOLDEN STATE (39-31)
Only 12 games left for the surprising Warriors, but they already exceeded a lot of expectations so far. Let’s go through their remaining schedule and see where they end up in the first round. They’ll beat Washington at home, but they’ll fall to the Lakers when they come to town. They’ll then win their next three against Sacramento, Portland and New Orleans before going back on the road again and getting upset by Phoenix. They’ll beat Utah and Minnesota at home and surprise everyone by beating Oklahoma City when they show up disjointed at Oracle Arena. Unfortunately, that big win against the Thunder will lead to a two-game losing streak, first at the Staples Center against a hungry Lakers squad and when the Spurs come to visit and Duncan rests (but it doesn’t matter because they’re the Spurs). They’ll finish their season out with a win on the road in Portland. That’s 8-4 through their last 12, and they’ll finish at 48-34 on the year. Let’s see how they compare to Houston, who is their only legitimate threat to take the six spot.
12 games remaining: (WAS), LAL*, (SAC), (POR), (NOR), (@PHX*), UTA, (MIN), OKC, @LAL*, SAS*, (@POR)
7. HOUSTON (37-31)
Daryl Morey has his guys on the verge of the playoffs, now all they have to do is take it home. They’ll beat the visiting Cavaliers still smarting from their Miami loss after a 27-point lead in the second half. But when the Spurs show up at the Toyota Center, they’ll fall. But they’ll beat visiting Indiana and then get an incredible win in Memphis that combined with their victory against the visiting Clippers the next night will have everyone talking about how they’re a sleeper in the playoffs and could steal a couple games from the Thunder. They’ll handle their business at home against Orlando, but they’ll go 0-3 on their road trip in Sacramento, Portland and Denver. They’ll come home to beat Phoenix, but lose to a ticked off Memphis team as well. They’ll handle Sacramento at home after losing in Sacramento earlier, and get a win in Phoenix before heading to the Staples Center for the last game of the season. Since they own the tiebreaker against the Warriors, a win in L.A. would mean a six seed and a date with Memphis instead of Oklahoma City. Unfortunately, they’ll lose to the Lakers and finish their last 14 games at 8-6, for a final record of 45-37 and a first-round date with the defending Western Conference champions. Don’t worry though Houston fans, Morey has you in a great spot this offseason, so even if you’re swept, there are brighter days on the horizon and you still have James Harden on the roster for the next five years and Chandler Parsons on his rookie deal.
14 games remaining: (CLE), SAS*, IND, @MEM, LAC, (ORL), (@SAC*), (@POR*), @DEN*, (PHX), MEM*, (SAC), (@PHX), @LAL*
8. LOS ANGELES LAKERS (36-33)
Those poor Lakers fans. What a roller-coaster ride of a season you’ve had, and you still have 13 games remaining despite barely being in the playoffs. The next month is going to be crucial for holding on to your final spot. I think they’re going to lose their next home game against a much-improved Wizards squad now that Wall is healthy. But they’ll go into Golden State and get a win before falling to the Timberwolves in Minnesota. They’ll win in Milwaukee as Monta goes 4-for-22 from the floor, but they’ll lose again on the road in Sacramento. After only going 2-2 on their road trip, they’ll come back home to Staples for huge victories over Dallas and Memphis before facing their home-court rivals as the away team. They’ll lose to the Clippers in a close game at Staples before beating New Orleans in the very same building. They’ll win in Portland and when Golden State visits they’ll beat them too. But they’ll lose to the Spurs’ second team (Popovich will be resting his starters for the playoffs at that point) before beating Houston on the final day of their regular season. They’ll finish their remaining 13 games 8-5 and end up with a 44-38 record on the season, which will be just enough to get in and face the Spurs, whose second team just beat them. It’s gonna be the most interesting No. 1 vs. No. 8 matchup in history though, and who knows what could happen if Dwight is a monster in the post and Kobe is fully recovered from his ankle sprain.
13 games remaining: (WAS*), @GSW, (@MIN*), @MIL, (@SAC*), DAL, MEM, @LAC*, (NOR), (@POR), GSW, SAS*, HOU
9. UTAH (34-34)
The Jazz have lost their last two games and seven of their last 10. They’re nosediving right when they’re supposed to be hitting their top gear as a team. They kept both Millsap and Jefferson around so they could make the playoffs, but that’s increasingly looking like it won’t happen. They have their next two games on the road in the state of Texas, and they’ll fall to first San Antonio and then Dallas. When they get home, things won’t be much better as they’ll lose to a visiting Sixers team that’s playing a lot more relaxed now that they don’t have the Bynum albatross hanging around their necks. They’ll beat Phoenix at home, but lose on the road to Portland before coming back home to lose to the Nets. Then, the clouds will clear a bit as they get three consecutive home victories against Portland, Denver and New Orleans before heading to Oracle Arena in the Bay and getting blown out by the frisky Warriors. Next they’ll lose to Oklahoma City before winning the home end of a home-and-home matchup against Minnesota. Unfortunately, they’ll lose in Minnesota and end their depressing final month with a loss in Memphis. They’ll finish 5-9 in their final 14 games, and 39-43 overall for their first losing season since, well, 2010-11 when Jerry Sloan quit and they finished with an identical record as this year.
14 games remaining: @SAS*, @DAL*, (PHI*), (PHX), (@POR*), BRK*, (POR), DEN, NOR, @GSW*, OKC*, (MIN), (@MIN*), @MEM*
10. DALLAS (32-36)
Just two years ago, they were champions, but in an effort by Mark Cuban to clear cap space in advance of the new luxury tax penalties, they let first Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea and Jason Kidd leave, then Jason Terry left after this past offseason. The offseason signings of Chris Kaman, Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo were an attempt to hold them over since they weren’t able to land Deron Williams last summer (Shark Tank!), but with Dirk missing a significant portion of the season then taking a while to get back into playing shape, it’s taken it’s toll on Rick Carlisle‘s squad. A nice surprise though has been the play of Vince Carter, who doesn’t crumple to the hardwood every time someone breaths on him anymore. Anyway, they’re going to lose to Boston at home, but then they have four more at American Airlines Center and they’ll beat Utah, LAC, Indiana and Chicago at home in succession to get one game back of .500. That’s when they’ll travel to to Staples Center to face the team they’re looking to replace as the eight seed. Unfortunately, they’ll lose to Kobe Bryant and Co. After that, it’s a dreadful game in Denver, which they’ll lose, but it’ll be their last loss of the season as they finish the year on a seven-game winning streak to finish one game back of L.A. at 43-39 on the year. It’ll be the first time they miss the playoffs since the 1999-2000 season, Dirk’s second in the league. But, hopefully, Cuban’s ego won’t allow Dallas to continue to be a mediocre contender in the West for long, and he’ll spend some money to shore up the roster for Dirk’s last few productive seasons.
14 games remaining: BOS*, UTA, LAC, IND, CHI, @LAL*, @DEN*, (@SAC), (@POR), (PHX), DEN, (@NOR), MEM, (NOR)
11. PORTLAND (31-36)
Hey, at least you have Damian Lillard, right Blazers fans? He’s gonna win the ROY when everyone said it was Anthony Davis‘ in the preseason. That’s gotta count for something. Plus, you are keeping games close, recently, but LaMarcus Aldridge has had a string of bad luck on final shots. Things aren’t going to get much better looking at your final 15 games beginning with tonight’s matchup in Chicago. It’s just a brutal schedule after playing a lot of home games to start the season. Portland’s going to lose their next four, before beating the Jazz when they visit before losing again on the road to Golden State. I don’t want to bore everyone further by going through each of these remaining games. I don’t see them beating anyone, except possibly an upset of Oklahoma City when they visit in April. They’ll take Houston at home and Utah at home in the remaining 15 games of the year, which means they’ll finish a deplorable 3-12 in their next 15 to end up at 34-48 overall on the year. I’m sorry to say it, but their schedule is just too loaded to be taken seriously as a playoff threat. But, again, you have the Rookie of the Year in Damian Lillard, and with LaMarcus Aldridge and Nic Batum, it a decent foundation moving forward. You just aren’t going to like this last month.
15 games remaining: @CHI*, @ATL*, @OKC*, BRK*, UTA, @GSW*, @UTA*, MEM*, HOU, DAL*, LAL*, OKC, @DEN*, @LAC*, GSW*
Final Predicted Western Conference Seedings:
1. San Antonio Spurs: 62-20
2. Oklahoma City Thunder: 61-21
3. Denver Nuggets: 57-25, win on tiebreaker after taking the season series against Memphis three games to one
4. Memphis Grizzlies: 57-25
5. Los Angeles Clippers: 56-26
6. Golden State Warriors: 48-34
7. Houston Rockets: 45-37
8. Los Angeles Lakers: 44-38
9. Dallas Mavericks: 43-39
Do you agree?
Follow Spencer on Twitter at @countcenci.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.