There are a few important questions in the Western Conference NBA playoff picture as we crawl past the midpoint of the season. Here they are with some preliminary answers.
Q. Are the Spurs seriously going to win the No. 1 seed again?
A: It sure looks that way. San Antonio has won eight straight and sits a game ahead of the Thunder for the top seed. There are only three teams even in contention for the top seed -- the Spurs, Thunder and Clippers, who are 2.5 games back. The key here is that San Antonio has only three more division games left; the Southwest is fairly tough, with Memphis and Houston looking like playoff teams. Oklahoma City, which has to deal with Denver, Utah, Portland and Minnesota in the Northwest, has nine more divisional games remaining. For its part, L.A. is 5-5 over its last 10 and has 20 road games and 16 home games remaining. It's pretty close to a lock in the No. 3 spot.
Q: Are the Warriors seriously going to make the playoffs?
A: Yes. But unfortunately, they are likely to be a No. 5 or No. 6 seed against a strong opponent like the Grizzlies or Clippers, so we may only get two or three games at Oracle, which promises to be a stupendous venue after a few years absent postseason basketball. Golden State is two games behind Memphis for No. 4 and tied with Denver.
Q: How many playoff spots are truly up for grabs?
A: I don't see a scenario in which any of San Antonio, Oklahoma City, the Clippers, Memphis, Golden State or Denver don't make the postseason. That's six teams, so we have two spots remaining. Utah and Houston currently sit in the Nos. 7 and 8 spots; I'd pick Houston to make the derby, but they certainly aren't anything like a guarantee. Other teams in play for those spots are the Blazers (1.5 games out), Lakers (4.5), Mavericks (4.5) and Timberwolves (5). So we have two spots up for grabs with six teams in play.
Q: What are the odds the Lakers grab one of those two spots?
A: After games like Monday night's bludgeoning of the Jazz at the hands of the Rockets, I want to say that Utah is not long for its No. 7 seed. But Utah is brilliant at home (15-5), and has 21 of its 37 remaining games in Salt Lake. Though I like Houston, its play against Western opponents is terrifying: it has gone just 9-17 against the West with 26 more conference games to go. (Five of those games are in the division.) The Lakers' road woes (5-15, 21 games to go) are well-documented; Portland's not much better away from home (7-14), but is at least solid against the West (13-12). Dallas has quietly hung with the Lakers, and Minnesota -- despite all the injuries -- won't go away. As a basketball fan, I'd like to see the Rockets and Lakers make it. James Harden against the Thunder, and Lakers-Spurs in the first round? You kidding me? But I think we're going to end up with the Jazz (if that loss on Monday didn't break their spirit) and either the Rockets or Blazers. The Jazz and Rockets are currently on pace for 43-44 wins. L.A. needs to go 24-14 (.631) the rest of the way to hit 43 wins. This is pretty fluid, though, and I could easily see the Rockets and/or Jazz going through a bad spell to make it easier on L.A. I'm not as confident in the Mavs or Wolves at this point.