As has been the case the last few seasons, the Western Conference remains out of control down the stretch run. A legitimate four spots are in play, and the race for the No. 2 seed behind the San Antonio Spurs is a real sprint to the finish. Some 11 teams in the West have eyes on the playoffs, with some of the trailing teams even holding out hope for a decent (read: better than Spurs' roadkill No. 8 spot) seed.
NO CHALLENGE AT THE TOP
It would take something catastrophic for the Spurs to fall from their perch at 54-12. The Spurs have a full seven-game lead on the Dallas Mavericks and remain 7.5 games ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers. It's unclear at what point Gregg Popovich will rest his stars even more; he seems to still be working to fine-tune the roster, recently replacing DeJuan Blair in the starting five with Antonio McDyess.
SPARRING FOR NO. 2
The Mavericks and Lakers are locked in a dogfight for the No. 2 seed, with L.A. taking the latest skirmish on Saturday. But the season series doesn't actually matter here; if the Lakers and Mavericks are tied at season's end, L.A. will win the tiebreaker owing to its Pacific Division title. The Mavericks are in the same division as the Spurs, meaning that even if Dallas takes the season series against the Lakers, if the teams have the same record L.A. cannot be the lower seed. (Divisions still mean something!) So Dallas needs to beat L.A. in the ledger to have home court advantage in a prospective second-round match-up.
That HCA in the second round is valuable, given that (barring a 1-8 upset) the winner of that series would be conceding home-court to the Spurs.
FINDING THEIR STRIDE
Like the Magic and Hawks in the East, the Oklahoma City Thunder are just kinda hangin' out, waiting for the playoffs and hoping to hit their stride. The Thunder seem wedged in the No. 4 spot, four games behind the Lakers for No. 3 and 3.5 games ahead of the Denver Nuggets, who are currently No. 5. The Thunder could slip down, but it would take a bad losing streak. But there is important on-court work to be done the final month of the season, as Kendrick Perkins should make his Thunder debut this week; Oklahoma City has four weeks to get comfortable with him at the center spot.
MESS IN THE WEST
The rest of the West's playoff picture is, uh, messy. Seven teams are competing for the final four spots, and while the Nuggets (39-27) and New Orleans Hornets (39-29) look safe, you never know. The Nuggets are 6.5 games ahead of the 11th place Houston Rockets (33-34), but just five games ahead of the No. 9 Phoenix Suns (33-31). Here's a table showing the situation for these seven teams, with opponents' record via PlayoffStatus.com.
|Team||W-L||Games Back||H/R Left||Opp. WP%|
|Nuggets||39-27||--||7 home/9 road||51%|
|Hornets||39-29||1||9 home/5 road||56%|
|Blazers||37-29||2||10 home/6 road||57%|
|Grizzlies||36-31||3.5||9 home/6 road||50%|
|Suns||33-31||5||8 home/10 road||53%|
|Jazz||34-33||5.5||8 home/7 road||54%|
|Rockets||33-34||6.5||10 home/5 road||51%|
The Rockets may seem a long ways back, but with 10 games at home and just five on the road, and a not-impossible opponent line-up remaining, they are still in this.