09 April 2010
The Lakers' decision to rest Kobe on Thursday night handed the Nuggets the inside track to the West's No. 2 seed, but they may not have it for long. Denver must still win either at home against San Antonio or on the road against Phoenix to have a realistic shot at No. 2. What the L.A. game really helped was the Nuggets' quest for home-court advantage, because Denver is a game up on Utah and owns the tiebreak. The Nuggets' magic number is now two, and while the Jazz could very well sweep their final three games (at New Orleans, at Golden State, home versus Phoenix), Denver needs only to beat Memphis at home and win one of the two games above to own the division, locking up home-court advantage and a probable No. 2 seed. Denver's main rival for No. 2 is Dallas, which is also a likely division winner. Even if the Mavs lose Friday in Portland, their remaining schedule (at Sacramento, at Clippers, and home against San Antonio in the season finale) gives Dallas a good shot at the second seed. San Antonio is formidable at full strength, but may be locked into the No. 7 seed by then and opt to play its scrubs. So even though the Playoff Odds project the Mavs at 53 wins, there's a good chance they'll land on 54. Since Dallas wins the tiebreaks with Denver (based on a 2-1 head-to-head record) and Phoenix (based on the fact the Mavs will likely win the Southwest Division), the Mavs have a great shot at usurping the No. 2 slot from the Nuggets … especially if the Spurs help them out Wednesday. But Dallas fans shouldn't root too hard against the Nuggets -- a three-way tie with Denver and Utah gives the Mavs the No. 2 seed, but a direct tie with Utah favors the Jazz. Thus, while the Playoff Odds project Dallas at 53 wins, there's also a decent chance both the Mavs and Jazz land on 54, and the Nuggets can join them by winning two of their final three. Lastly, Phoenix is still in the picture for the No. 2 seed but would have to win out against a difficult schedule. In fact … There are three big problems for the Suns right now, and when one adds them all up, Phoenix will probably open the playoffs on the road. The first problem is that Denver is probably going to win the Northwest Division instead of Utah. Phoenix can own the tiebreak with the Nuggets by beating them Tuesday, but it won't matter if the Nuggets are division champs. The second problem is that San Antonio might not have any reason to compete in its season finale against Dallas, because the Spurs could very well be locked into the No. 7 seed by then. That would eliminate the Suns' slim possibility of passing Dallas, 54 wins to 53, but it could earn Phoenix home court despite technically being seeded fifth. The Suns, of course, can get to 55 wins by sweeping their final four games, but that takes us to our last problem: their schedule. They play Friday in Oklahoma City and close the season in Utah. They need to win at least one of those games and sweep two home games against Denver and Houston to have a shot at home court. Since the Suns will lose potential ties with Denver and Dallas because they aren't a division champ and they are unlikely to pass either with less than 54 wins, the Suns basically need to win the season finale at Utah in order to emerge with home-court advantage. A win would give the Suns the tiebreak over the Jazz and stick Utah with another loss … which would max out Utah at 53 wins and mean Phoenix could lose two of the other three games and still earn home-court advantage. So for the Suns, it's basically about beating Utah (32-8 in Energy Solutions Arena) on the road. Good luck with that. Even if they sweep the other three games, it may not be enough to get them home court. Oklahoma City suffered heartbreaking losses to Portland and San Antonio last week that, combined, will likely relegate the Thunder to the West's No. 8 seed. Oklahoma City would need to win at Portland on Monday to have a realistic shot at sidestepping that fate because the Thunder would lose the tiebreaker to both San Antonio and Portland. A loss, however, would make it virtually impossible to catch the Blazers. While games at Golden State and at home against Memphis should be Thunder wins, Oklahoma City hosts the Suns on Friday, putting its likely outcome at 51 wins. The Blazers, meanwhile, host Dallas on Friday and visit the Lakers on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC) before the Thunder's Monday visit, giving Portland three straight tough opponents before a season-ender against the Warriors. The interesting dilemma is if the Lakers play Bryant on Sunday or if they decide they'd rather not see Portland in the first round of the playoffs and gift wrap a win for the Blazers. However, even if one pencils in a loss in L.A., then the Blazers would need to win the Oklahoma City game to avoid the No. 8 seed and would need to beat Dallas to have a realistic shot at No. 6. Which takes us to San Antonio. The Spurs have two near-automatic wins (home games against Memphis and Minnesota) and one probable loss (at Denver on a back-to-back) remaining on their schedule. If it plays out that way, San Antonio would be 50-31 heading into its season finale against Dallas. If the Blazers beat Oklahoma City and Dallas but lose to the Lakers, they'll also be at 50. But the location of Friday's Thunder-Suns game is important. Why? If the Thunder win that one but lose to Portland, then the three teams are likely to be tied at 50 wins, and the Spurs would play their best payers in the season finale against Dallas. If not, however, the Thunder will be locked into No. 8 by then, and the Spurs -- figuring there's no way Portland would drop a home game to Golden State -- will be content with No. 7 and punt the Dallas game. The other wild card is if Oklahoma City wins at Portland. That would put the Blazers in a precarious spot, because they would max out at 50 wins while Oklahoma City would have at least 51. In that event, the Spurs would try very hard to win the finale in Dallas and avoid dropping to No. 8 in the West because the Blazers would hold the tiebreak. Hollinger Break it all done. So how do I see it playing out? The East is the easy one, so let's start there: I see Boston and Miami hanging on to their seeding advantages and the Bulls beating the Bosh-less Raptors on Sunday to claim the No. 8 spot. If so, our playoff matchups would look like this: No. 1 Cavs versus No. 8 Bulls; No. 2 Magic versus No. 7 Bobcats; No. 3 Celtics versus No. 6 Bucks; and No. 4 Hawks in a 2009 first-round rematch with No. 5 Heat. In the West, I see Denver beating San Antonio and Memphis but losing to Phoenix and finishing with 54 wins; Utah winning out to also land at 54; and the Suns losing to the Jazz and to the Thunder to finish with 53, forcing them to start the first round on the road. At the bottom half, I see Portland and Oklahoma City both finishing with 51 wins, which means San Antonio will play its A-team and beat Dallas in the season finale. Combined with a loss to Portland on Friday, that would drop the Mavs to 53 wins, while the Spurs would finish with 51. If it plays out that way, it's … No. 1 Lakers versus No. 8 Thunder; No. 2 Denver versus No. 7 San Antonio; No. 3 Utah versus No 6 Portland; and No. 4 Dallas versus No. 5 Phoenix. The other outcome to consider is a Phoenix win in Oklahoma City on Friday night, which would also swing the Dallas-San Antonio season finale because it wouldn't matter to the Spurs. In that even it's No. 1 Lakers versus No. 8 Thunder, No. 2 Dallas versus No. 7 San Antonio, No. 3 Denver versus No. 6 Portland, and No. 4 Utah versus No. 5 Phoenix. Of course, it will likely play out differently in the real world -- there's going to be at least one surprise in there somewhere -- and that's the fun of it. This is a road map, but I'm sure some of the street names will change between now and Wednesday night.
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