Now that March Madness is over I can focus my attention on perhaps the best month in all of sports – the NBA playoffs. The playoffs haven’t begun yet but the battle to avoid 8th place is in on.
The playoffs don’t officially start for another week, but the remaining slate of regular season basketball will rival playoff intensity, especially in the Western Conference where seeds 2 through 8 are separated by just three games.
This tightly contested battle for playoff positioning will be vital for contenders. What’s more, these western conference foes are set to battle head-to-head as the season comes to a close. The NBA playoffs are, for all intent and purposes, already in full swing.
While there’s a number of playoff seeds yet to be determined, the race I’m most interested in is the race for the 6th seed in the Western Conference, better known as the “race to avoid the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round.” Let’s break it down.
To begin, it’s highly unlikely that any of these three teams will move up past the 6th seed, so I felt comfortable leaving the other conference foes out. This three team logjam contains an interesting assortment of teams though.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are young, supremely athletic, and heading into their first postseason. The Portland Trailblazers battled devastating injuries to return to the playoffs thanks in large part to their stingy defense. The San Antonio Spurs are a unique combination of wily veterans with championship pedigree and an influx of young, raw talent. Three capable teams. Three different makeups. One common goal: Avoid the Los Angeles Lakers in round one (oh, and win a title too).
So here’s how the last week of the regular season looks for the aforementioned teams battling to avoid the eighth seed. For each team (POR, SAS, OKC) I’ve included their last four opponents, current record, and projected record at the end of the season. As you can see, I projected them all to finish the season 3-1 in their final games. It probably won’t happen this way but I wanted a three way tie because I love tiebreakers. Sorry
The Blazers are probably the least likely to finish 3-1 as their remaining schedule is the toughest. They’ve owned the Mavericks this year (3-0), but have to travel to LA to face the Lakers and then return home to face the Thunder with huge playoff implications at stake. Portland leads the season series with OKC 2-1. Assuming the Blazers can sneak a win from Dallas or LA and top the lowly Warriors, a third victory over the Thunder would clinch the division tiebreaker and all but guarantee them the 6th seed (unless the Spurs finish 4-0). Conversely, losing two of their final four games could and probably would drop Portland to the 8th seed. The Blazers have the luxury of controlling their own destiny. The Spurs and Thunder aren’t so fortunate.
Home games against Memphis and Minnesota should result in victories for San Antonio, but a road contest in Denver and then closing the season in Dallas will certainly test the Spurs. They trail in both season series’ (1-2) and will probably need at least one victory in those two games to stay out of the eighth spot. (Again, assuming they beat Memphis and Minny.) The Spurs must also be kicking themselves for dropping a game to the lowly Nets last month in the midst of a playoff race. It’s very possible that that loss will ultimately put them toe to toe with Kobe in round one. And they say every game doesn’t matter.
Like the Blazers and Spurs, the Thunder also face a difficult schedule. Memphis and Golden State should be wins. However, this is the first stretch of playoff intensity basketball that the young Thunder have tasted. How they respond over the next week may forecast their success, or lack thereof, in the playoffs. Oklahoma City’s contest against the Suns-arguably the hottest team in the league-will be crucial. I have the Thunder finishing 3-1 to accommodate my tiebreaking fetish, but that includes a tough victory over Phoenix. In reality, a win over Portland would do more for the Thunder’s playoff seeding. I just don’t see it happening.
So here we are. Three teams at 51-31. If this unlikely scenario plays out, here’s how they’ll be seeded. Assuming Portland defeats Oklahoma City, the Trailblazers would finish 6th. They would own the season series over both the Spurs (3-0) and Thunder (3-1). The Spurs would then get the 7th seed over the Thunder with a 3-1 advantage in their season series. Oklahoma City would then draw the Los Angeles Lakers.
Now let’s pretend they don’t all finish 51-31. I think the Blazers will have a tough time closing the season 3-1 and could therefore fall into the eighth seed. If they can defeat Oklahoma City on 4/12 and finish with a better or even identical record as the Thunder, they can still avoid the Lakers.
In order to avoid the Lakers, the Thunder will need to do one of the following. If they lose to Portland on 4/12, OKC will have to finish with a better record than the Spurs AND Blazers. If they knock off Portland on 4/12, they only need to finish ahead of the Spurs OR tie the Blazers (tiebreaker in division games).
Despite an ugly loss to Phoenix on Wednesday night, the Spurs still control whether or not they’ll end up in LA when the playoffs start. All San Antonio needs to do is finish ahead of or tied with the Thunder to avoid the eighth seed. In order to attain the 6th spot, the Spurs will also need to finish ahead of Portland in the standings.