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The Western Conference Pileup

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So many teams are jockeying for position in the middle of the Western Conference. How will it play out?

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

One of the fun Twitter things I’ve noticed since the All-Star break is Wolves fans agonizing over results from other games, not, as has been usual, in a fight over ping pong balls, but instead for playoff position. That’s obviously something we haven’t experienced in a while, and it’s awesome.

I’ve been waiting for separation in the Western Conference for the last couple of months. I figured a few teams would fade and create an obvious tier in the hunt for playoff spots, but other than the top tier of the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, it simply hasn’t happened.

And so we head into the home stretch of the season with seven teams separated by 3.5 games spread from the third spot (Wolves) to the ninth spot (Nuggets.) It’s going to make for an incredibly exciting run-in.

One of the fun things here is that on just about any night, there is at least one game of interest as we sweat out the season. Tonight, for example, the Pelicans (6th, 34-26) are at the Spurs (4th, 36-25.) It’s nice to know that one of these teams will add a loss while the Wolves prepare for Portland. Meanwhile, the Thunder are at the Mavericks, and we can hope for some surprise help from the Mavs, even if we can’t expect it.

And that’s how it’s going to be for the next six weeks.

I can’t wait.

The Wolves big disadvantage here is they are going to miss their best player for most if not all of this stretch run. That can’t help. They’ve beaten the Bulls and Kings since Jimmy Butler went down, but things get much tougher starting tomorrow. On the other hand, they have already clinched season series wins over key rivals Oklahoma City and New Orleans, (as well as the Los Angeles Clippers,) and have the opportunity to take series against other key opponents coming up.

Let’s thumbnail the competition:

San Antonio Spurs (36-25): Still my bet to finish third, they have finished the rodeo trip and play 13 of 21 at home. Most experienced (with winning) team in the group. Still, it’s not an easy run, with two left vs both the Rockets & Warriors. Not sure how much they will care about seeding in the final weeks.

Portland Trail Blazers (35-26): Dangerous team that has won six of seven and 13 of 18 since the Wolves beat them in mid-January. Final meeting between them is tomorrow in Portland, and it’s huge. A Wolves win gives them a series win against the Blazers, which is like having another game in the standings.

New Orleans Pelicans (34-26): Surprise winners of six straight to push them up to fifth at the moment, Anthony Davis has been dominating. The loss of DeMarcus Cousins to injury was a blow, but they’ve recovered. Still, the six game streak has included three overtime wins, and it’s been a soft schedule. They probably aren’t as good as they’ve looked recently.

Oklahoma City Thunder (35-27): I’m pretty happy to be done with them for the regular season. They’ve had their ups and downs, but have talent and are capable of beating anyone. Could make some hay over next couple weeks, as five of their eight opponents are the Mavs, Suns (2), Kings, and Hawks. Still have two vs. Spurs, two vs. Rockets, and one vs, Warrirors.

Los Angles Clippers (32-27): Sneakily hanging around and beat the Nuggets last night to get back into a playoff spot. They are started Wesley Johnson, Austin Rivers, and Tyrone Wallace. That ended a 5-2 road trip. They start a six game home stand tonight against the Rockets, but it gets easier after tonight. Still, they spend much of their final month on the road.

Denver Nuggets (33-28): Paul Millsap returned last night in their loss to the Clippers, but whether he’ll be able to help after missing so much time remains to be seen. Arguably the weakest remaining schedule, as they are done with the Spurs, Rockets, and Warriors. The Wolves, who beat them the first two meetings, see them twice in the final week of the season, which could prove to be big games for both teams.

For the Wolves, things are tough over the next seven games:

at Blazers
at Jazz
Celtics
Warriors
at Wizards
at Spurs
Rockets

After that, it eases up some, and they don’t face another team that is currently in the top four in either conference. But nothing is going to come easy. The Western Conference is a pileup, and fighting their way through the mess is going to be a challenge.

We have so many games to pay attention to, and a huge opportunity is there for our Timberwolves over the next six weeks. Let’s make sure to enjoy it.

How do you see things sorting out in the West?