With only a handful of games left in the NBA regular season, the Western Conference playoff seeding from four through eight is still up for grabs, with six teams within a game-and-a-half of one another. On any given day, the seeding can change, sometimes dramatically.
For Rockets fans, this seeding is critical because it not only determines who they face in round one, but also who might emerge to play them in the Western Conference semi-finals.
The current top three (Houston, Golden State, Portland) are locked into their spots, one through three. After that, it currently looks like this:
5. San Antonio (tied in standings, down tiebreaker to Utah)
6. Oklahoma City (-.5)
7. Minnesota (-1)
8. New Orleans (-1.5)
9. Denver (-2)
Scheduling and tiebreakers will make all the difference over the next week.
They have been one of the better teams since the All-Star break and one of the better defensive teams all season. They have two games in LA against the Lakers and Clippers (who have been good lately), a home game against an injury-depleted Golden State and a final game on the second night of a back-to-back in Portland, who may be resting players by that point. It wouldn't be a surprise if they wrapped up the fourth seed by the weekend.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs, like the Jazz, have been on a roll as of late and appear to be surging towards the playoffs. They will need it with games at the Clippers, home for the Trailblazers and Kings before finishing on the road at New Orleans, a team fighting for their own playoff lives. Even so, I expect the Spurs to remain fifth.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Here's where things start to get dicey. The Thunder are 5-5 in their last 10. They only have three games left, but they are at Houston, at Miami and home for Memphis. Don't expect the Rockets to roll over on OKC and Miami is battling for a spot in the East. Making things more interesting, the two teams behind them own the tiebreaker over the Thunder. Any slip by them could send them from six all the way down to eight in a hurry.
One of the trendy choices in the offseason for a team to challenge Golden State, Minnesota has struggled with consistency despite the ridiculous skills of Karl-Anthony Townes. Their four games include games at Denver and the Clippers before coming home to face Memphis and the Nuggets again. Denver is only a half game behind eighth place New Orleans and could, with a pair of wins, send the T-Wolves out of the playoffs altogether.
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New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans have the most games remaining (5) of any playoff contender, with three on the road. They begin home for Memphis before a three-game West Coast road trip against Phoenix, Golden State, the Clippers. The end the season at home against the Spurs. They are teetering on the verge of elimination and will need to win all the must-wins left (Memphis, Phoenix, LA) if they want to stay in the race.
Right now, they are on the outside looking in, but their remaining schedule offers them the opportunity to completely reverse their own fortunes including owning the tiebreaker against the team immediately ahead of them. But they also have the toughest schedule to close with two games against Minnesota (home and away), plus games at the Clippers and home for Portland. Given the schedule, they will need some help to get in.