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The Western Conference Muddle: Who Will Emerge?

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As has been true for weeks, the West is incredibly tight after the top two teams. Who has the easiest schedule down the stretch.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Time to take a deep breath and get ready for the final push. As of this morning, here are the Western Conference standings:

  1. Houston Rockets (57-14)
  2. Golden State Warriors (53-18)
  3. Portland Trail Blazers (44-27)
  4. Oklahoma City Thunder (43-30)
  5. New Orleans Pelicans (42-30)
  6. San Antonio Spurs (41-30)*
  7. Minnesota Timberwolves (41-31)
  8. Utah Jazz (40-31)

*Written before Spurs-Wizards result, because I’m old and can’t stay up that late.

Things remain incredibly tight, and it’s very difficult to predict what will happen down the stretch. Some teams will remain, or get, hot, others won’t. Let’s start with a list of who I would prefer to see the Wolves face in the first round, from most appealing to least:

Jazz
Pelicans
Thunder
Spurs
Blazers
Warriors
Rockets

You could make an argument to rearrange those middle three in any order and I wouldn’t put up a big fight; I admit I might be expressing some recency bias given how the Blazers have been playing lately and seeing the Spurs handle the Wolves with ease the other night.

Let’s take a look at what each team has remaining:

Blazers:

BOS
@OKC
@NOP
@MEM
LAC
MEM
@DAL
@HOU
@SAS
@DEN
UTA

Seven of their last 11 on the road, eight against >.500 teams. But they have a cushion, and some of these teams might have little to play for. I expect them to hold on to third, especially with the ball they’ve been playing lately, but it’s a tough schedule down the stretch.

Thunder

MIA
POR
@SAS
DEN
@NOP
GSW
@HOU
@MIA
MEM

Oof. Eight of nine against winning teams, but the Warriors and Rockets might have already locked in their spots by the time these games happen, so might not be at their sharpest (or most fully rostered.) The Wolves have the tie-breaker against the Thunder, and it might come down to that. Their brutal loss to the Celtics on Tuesday night could haunt them, as they had control of that game. Still, would have to probably lose four games to give the Wolves a real chance at catching them. And even then...

Spurs

UTA
@MIL
@WAS
OKC
HOU
@LAC
@LAL
POR
SAC
@NOP

Man, these teams have tough schedules. Seven of nine against over .500 teams, that last game of the season in New Orleans could mean a ton to a lot of teams. Games against the Jazz, Thunder, Blazers, and Pelicans are games in which one of those teams is going to take a loss.

Pelicans

LAL
@HOU
POR
@CLE
OKC
MEM
@PHO
@GSW
@LAC
SAS

Seven of ten against better than .500 teams. That four game stretch after the Lakers at home could tell much of the tale for the Pels. Very impressive from them since Boogie went down, and Anthony Davis is just a monster. But whether they have enough to maintain their current spot is unclear.

Wolves

@NYK
@PHI
MEM
ATL
@DAL
UTA
@DEN
@LAL
MEM
DEN

By far the softest remaining schedule of the teams currently 3-8. Only four of last ten against over .500 teams, four against obvious tankers (Hawks, Mavs, Grizzlies twice.) Only two games currently against teams in a playoff position. It’s all right there for the Wolves. Finishing 7-3 in these ten would get them to 48 wins and certainly out of the dreaded seventh/eighth spots, and that’s not unreasonable. A game to keep an eye on is at the Sixers. It’s the second night of a back to back, and one of the losses you might pencil in, but if they can somehow sneak out of this road trip with two wins, it would be massive.

Jazz

@DAL
@SAS
@GSW
BOS
MEM
@MIN
LAL
LAC
@LAL
GSW
POR

Seven of 11 against over .500 teams, but a manageable schedule for the Jazz. Two against the Warriors, but that last one will almost certainly be a case where the Warriors have nothing to play for. Six at home, with the finale against the Blazers looming large, possibly for both teams. The visit to Target Center could be huge.

Nuggets

@WAS
@PHI
@TOR
@OKC
MIL
IND
MIN
@LAC
POR
@MIN

This road trip could be near curtains for the Nuggets, already saddled with 33 losses. Losing three or even all four is a distinct possibility and would likely doom them. Every team they play after they blew out Chicago last night is currently over .500. It seems like it’s too much for them to overcome, but youneverknow.

Clippers

@IND
@TOR
MIL
@PHO
@POR
IND
SAS
@UTA
DEN
NOP
LAL

They get to play several of the teams they are chasing for a spot, including that stretch starting with the Spurs and ending with the Pelicans, so I guess there is a chance they could get back into things, but it’s going to take a monster run for them to make the playoffs.

Widely, things are set up reasonably well for the Wolves to climb back into the 4th or 5th spot if they can take care of themselves. Their schedule is a real advantage, and after monster streaks by several competing teams, head to head match ups down the stretch will saddle some of them with losses.

Of course, this is Timberwolves Jake, so things could always go horribly wrong. But I’m looking forward to playoff basketball for the first time in a long time, and hopefully they will manage to get an opponent against whom the result is not a foregone conclusion.

How do you see this playing out?