The Western Conference is... tight. With most teams having between 18 and 20 games left, the number one seed (San Antonio) is only 10 games in the loss column ahead of the ninth seed (Phoenix). Now, while San Antonio won't fall out of the playoffs, and Phoenix won't climb to first, that's a startlingly small gap for teams. Even a team like the Clippers could be in jeopardy of missing the postseason if they went on a four or five game slide. In the battle for seeding, there's a very small margin for error for every team involved.
To make it all more interesting, the Western Conference is about to enter what Steve Perrin and I are calling "Hell Week", where those 9 teams will play head to head 7 times in the next 7 days. And that's not including match-ups against Eastern Conference teams and potential upsets against other Western Conference teams (look no further than the Lakers shocking the Thunder yesterday).
The playoff picture right now:
|Team||Wins||Losses||Opponents This Week|
|San Antonio||46||16||@ Chicago, vs Portland, vs LA Lakers, vs Utah|
|Oklahoma City||46||17||vs Houston, vs Lakers, vs Dallas|
|Houston||44||19||@ Oklahoma City, @ Chicago, @ Miami|
|LA Clippers||44||20||vs Phoenix, vs Golden State, @ Utah, vs Cleveland|
|Portland||42||21||@ Memphis, @ San Antonio, @ New Orleans, vs Golden State|
|Golden State||40||24||vs Dallas, @ LA Clippers, vs Cleveland, @ Portland|
|Dallas||38||26||@ Golden State, @ Utah, @ Oklahoma City|
|Memphis||36||26||vs Portland, @ New Orleans, @ Toronto, @ Philadelphia|
|Phoenix||36||26||@ LA Clippers, vs Cleveland, @ Boston, @ Toronto|
Yikes. Every single team up there has at least two tough games this week if you include Toronto as tough game for Memphis and Phoenix (and why wouldn't you, they're both road games against the #3 seed in the East). In particular, it's a brutal week for Houston, who has to play the on the road against the Thunder, Bulls, and Heat this week. All three of those are really tough games and it's a lot easier to see them going 0-3 on that trip than 3-0.
The West can basically be split up into three battles right now: 1 vs 2, 3-5 and 6-9. While Oklahoma City is vulnerable at number 2, and Golden State could still take the 5 seed, those things almost certainly won't happen this week.
However, here's what we could see this week:
- San Antonio Cementing the No. 1 Seed: San Antonio has two tough games this week, including a back-to-back which puts them in Chicago Tuesday night and at home against Portland Wednesday night. However, if the Spurs can make it out of that, they close the week with relatively easy games against the Lakers and Utah. If the Spurs can accomplish a doable 4-0 this week, and the Thunder continue to drop games, San Antonio could begin to strengthen their hold on the top seed in the conference.
- No. 2 Seed Comes into Play: After seemingly being a race for third after San Antonio and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma City's loss against the Lakers on Sunday coupled with another loss this week could open up the 2nd overall seed to challengers like the Clippers and Rockets.
- Clippers Separate from the Pack: The Clippers, Rockets, and Blazers have all been tight in the 3, 4, and 5 slots for the last couple of weeks, never moving too far apart. However, the Blazers have been dwindling since they stopped winning close games (8-1 in their first 9 games decided by 5 points or less, 5-11 since), and the Rockets have the roughest week of any team with three road games against three really good teams. The Clippers, on the other hand, have two tough games against Phoenix and Golden State, but both are at home. If the Clippers can take care of business, and the Rockets stumble on the road, LA could separate.
- Golden State Could Fall... Or Jump: The Warriors, besides having to play in Los Angeles against the Clippers tomorrow night, have to play both Dallas (the team behind them in the standings) and Portland (the team ahead of them) this week. If Golden State loses both, they're in danger of losing the cushion between them and the three teams fighting for 7, 8, and 9. If Golden State wins both, they could move within one or two losses of 5th seed Portland, who also has to play in Memphis, San Antonio, and New Orleans this week before hosing Golden State.
- Last One Out: Instead of having two teams fighting to be the last one in the playoffs, the West this year features three (or maybe four, if Golden State drops some games) teams fighting to not be the last one out. Dallas, Memphis, and Phoenix all enter the week with 26 losses. Dallas has 18 games remaining while Memphis and Phoenix both have 20 to play. In the battle between these teams, every loss is crucial. I don't see anyone dropping out of the race this week, but all it takes is one or two losses to put any of them at a significant disadvantage.
League Pass Viewing Guide
If you're wondering what games are most important to watch this week in the WC race, wonder no more. Here's your viewing guide for those of you who have league pass.
- Monday: Phoenix @ LA Clippers, 7:30 PM PST (NBATV). The only two WC playoff contenders in action tonight, and one of them is the Clippers. Duh.
- Tuesday: Houston @ Oklahoma City, 5:00 PM PST (NBATV) and Dallas @ Golden State, 7:30 PM PST. As the Clippers try to make a push for the second seed, nothing's better than a Houston-Oklahoma City match-up. Either way, one loses. A Houston loss could tie them with the Clippers in the loss column, while a Thunder loss moves the Clippers closer to home-court in the second round. Dallas @ Golden State matters more in the bottom half of the race, as those two teams currently sit at 6 and 7. Golden State needs to win games like this if they want to make a push for the 5th seed, and for Dallas, every game matters as they battle Memphis and Phoenix to stay in the postseason. Also make sure you scoreboard watch the Portland @ Memphis (5:00 PM PST) and San Antonio @ Chicago (5:00 PM PST) games, which both have playoff ramifications.
- Wednesday: Portland @ San Antonio, 6:30 PM PST (ESPN) and Golden State @ LA Clippers, 7:30 PST. There's no way we can miss the Warriors and the Clippers in a huge game for both teams, but Portland-San Antonio is a big game as well. The Clippers need a win to keep fighting for second, the Warriors need a win to stay ahead of the Dallas/Memphis/Phoenix contingent, the Blazers need a win to stay in the race for home court advantage, and the Spurs need a win to hold onto the #1 seed. The fun part is that not everyone can win. Also make sure you scoreboard watch the Memphis @ New Orleans (5:00 PM PST), Dallas @ Utah (6:00 PM PST), and Cleveland @ Phoenix (7:00 PM PST) games, as all three teams at the bottom of the playoff picture try to avoid an upset loss.
- Thursday: Houston @ Chicago, 4:00 PM PST (TNT) and LA Lakers @ Oklahoma City, 6:30 PM PST (TNT). The only two relevant Western teams in action tonight are on TNT, as Houston plays a tough road game in Chicago and Oklahoma City goes for revenge against the Lakers team that upset them on Sunday.
- Friday: LA Clippers @ Utah, 6:00 PM PST. There's no head-to-head battles between Western powers on Friday, so we'll play it safe with the Clippers on the road trying to take care of business against the Jazz. Also make sure you scoreboard watch the Memphis @ Toronto (4:00 PM PST), Phoenix @ Boston (4:30 PM PST), Portland @ New Orleans (5:00 PM PST), LA Lakers @ San Antonio (5:30 PM PST on NBATV), and Cleveland @ Golden State (7:30 PM PST) games, as the Clippers are just one of six Western playoff teams taking the court on Friday.
- Saturday: Memphis @ Philadelphia, 4:30 PM PST. The only one of the 9 relevant West teams in action Saturday is Memphis, who is on the second game of a road back-to-back in Philadelphia. The 76ers are quite possibly the least talented NBA team ever after their trade deadline moves, so tune in to watch Byron Mullens rip the Grizzles' big men to shreds, or, um, something like that.
- Sunday: Phoenix @ Toronto, 10:00 AM PST, Houston @ Miami, 12:30 PM PST (ABC), Dallas @ Oklahoma City, 4:00 PM PST, Golden State @ Portland, 6:00 PM PST, and Cleveland @ LA Clippers, 6:30 PM PST (NBATV). If you ignore Selection Sunday and focus on the pro ranks, there's Western Conference teams in action all day on Sunday. The Marquee match-up of the day is Houston-Miami on ABC, a tough road game for the Rockets. A Miami win would help the Clippers there. Then, there's two pairings of teams in the Western playoff hunt later on, as Dallas takes on Oklahoma City and Golden State heads to Portland in one of the biggest games of the week. The Clippers are in action themselves, although against a lesser opponent, as they host the Cavaliers. Also make sure you scoreboard watch the Utah @ San Antonio (4:00 PM PST) and keep track of both the Golden State-Portland and Cleveland-LA Clippers games, which will be simultaneous.