Something happened on the New Orleans Pelicans' path to the playoffs after they traded for DeMarcus Cousins. They lost their first three games out of the All-Star break to fall four games behind the eighth-place Denver Nuggets.
As Cousins and Anthony Davis learn to coexist, the Pelicans have struggled on both ends of the floor. While Cousins and Davis have put up strong numbers, Jrue Holiday has shot 29 percent with almost as many turnovers (16) as assists (18). And what was the league's eighth-ranked defense before the break has allowed 113 points per 100 possessions in the three games to fall out of the top 10.
The early post-break schedule wasn't easy. The Pelicans had to face the high-powered Rockets in their first game with Cousins, and then had a road back-to-back in Dallas and Oklahoma City.
Things aren't going to get much easier from here on out. The Pelicans have the league's fourth toughest remaining schedule when you take opponent strength, location and rest into account. While 13 of their 22 remaining games are against teams currently below .500, only two of those (both against the Lakers) are against a team that is out of the playoff picture.
With the cluster of below .500 teams fighting for the last playoff spot in each conference, there are a lot of not-so-good teams playing important games. But that could end up being a positive for the Pelicans.
Though there are five teams between them and a playoff spot, the Pelicans can take care of business themselves if they can put it together between now and the middle of March, because starting March 14, eight of their final 16 games are against those five teams in front of them. Five of those eight games are at home and three (one at home, two in Denver) are against the eighth-place Nuggets.
So if they can keep pace with Denver over the next two weeks, the Pelicans will have a lot of big games to play over the final month of the season.
Here's a breakdown of the remaining schedules for all 15 teams in the Western Conference...
Some more Western Conference notes from the remaining schedule ...
- The Mavs are still alive for a playoff spot, but need to make up some ground in the next couple of weeks. After Wednesday's game in Atlanta, they have a five-game homestand against two good teams - Memphis and Oklahoma City - and three bad ones - the Lakers, Nets and Suns. They've won eight of their last 10 at home and their schedule gets tougher after that. In fact, after March 11, they have just six home games left. Five of those are against teams no worse than the Thunder and the sixth is against Denver.
- Similarly, if the Nuggets are going to hold onto the 8 seed, they need to take advantage of the next few weeks. After visiting Milwaukee on Wednesday, they will play seven of their next eight games at home, where they're 9-3 since Jan. 12. There are some good teams coming to Denver in that stretch, but five of those seven will be against teams playing the second game of a back-to-back. After that, their schedule get tougher and includes three games against the Pelicans, so it will be important for the Nuggets to have a decent cushion after March 18.
- In the fight for the 4 seed, the Jazz have a half game lead, but the Clippers have won both head-to-head meetings (with two remaining) and have the easier schedule going forward. The Clippers play 13 of their 23 remaining games at home and 13 against teams below .500. Only three of their remaining games are on the road against a team currently over .500.
- In the fight for the 6 seed, the Grizzlies have a half game lead, an easier remaining schedule than the Thunder in regard to home/road and back-to-backs (with six games where they'll have a rest advantage), and the final head-to-head meeting in their building (when both teams will be playing the second game of a back-to-back). But the Thunder have won two of the three head-to-head meetings thus far, and have the easier remaining schedule in regard to opponent strength. Oklahoma City will play 15 of its 22 remaining games (the most favorable ratio in the league) against teams currently under .500.
- Of the six teams still in the mix for the 8 seed in the West, the Timberwolves have played the best over the last couple of weeks, with wins over Denver, Dallas and Sacramento. But the Wolves have the league's toughest remaining schedule, with 14 of their 22 games on the road and 12 against teams with winning records. That includes two games against the Warriors and two against the Spurs.
- If the Blazers are still within a game or two of eighth place after March 19, their schedule will allow them to make a late playoff push. Ten of their final 12 games are at home and in four of those games, they'll have a rest advantage (with their opponent playing the second game of a back-to-back). One of their two road games (and the second game of their only back-to-back) in their last 12 is against the Lakers.
- The Spurs have the league's most home-heavy remaining schedule, with 14 of their 23 games at the AT&T Center. That includes two home games against the Warriors, who they trail by just three games in the loss column.
- The Jazz currently rank third defensively and if they can hold onto that spot, they will have earned it. Of Utah's remaining 22 games, 10 are against top-10 offenses and only four are against bottom-10 offenses.
Favorable schedule gives Heat a chance at improbable playoff berth
The Miami Heat, who were 11-30 through mid-January, may be in the best position to take a playoff spot from the Chicago Bulls (30-30) or Detroit Pistons (29-31). A 16-3 stretch has the Heat just two games out of eighth place with a favorable schedule going forward.
The Heat will play 13 of their remaining 22 games at home, where they've won nine of their last 10. Nine of their next 12 games are at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Miami also has six games remaining where they'll have a rest advantage (with their opponent playing the second game of a back-to-back. They have just three games remaining with a rest disadvantage (where they're playing the second game of a back-to-back against a rested opponent).
The Heat have already lost the tiebreaker to the Bulls (who won the head-to-head series 2-1) and their only remaining game against the Bulls or Pistons is in Detroit. But that will be the second game of a road-home back-to-back for the Pistons (who have won two of the three meetings thus far), with the Heat having a day off prior.
The Heat do have three games left against the Cleveland Cavaliers (including a home-and-home March 4 and 6), but one of those is the last week of the season, with a decent chance that LeBron James takes the night off. The Heat's five remaining games against the Western Conference are all at home, against teams under .500.
More Eastern Conference notes...
- The Hawks begin March with a six-game homestand, but after hosting the Mavs on Wednesday, seven of their next eight games will be against teams with winning records. That stretch starts with the first of three more games against the Cavs and includes games against the Warriors and Spurs.
- The Celtics begin March with a home game against the Cavs and then a five-game trip out west. After that, they're back home for 11 of their final 16 games. And three of their final five road games are in Brooklyn, Philadelphia and New York. They're 7-1 against those teams thus far.
- The Bulls have a slightly tougher schedule than other teams in play for the last two playoff spots in the East, but if they can get through the next three weeks, they'll be in good shape. Eight of their next 11 games are against teams with winning records, while two of the other three are on the road against teams - Detroit and Charlotte - chasing them. After March 21, only two of their final 11 games are against teams that currently have winning records, though that stretch begins with another game (at home) against the Pistons and includes a visit to Milwaukee.
- The Cavs are about to pay for how home-heavy their schedule was in the first two months of the season. Twelve of their next 16 games are on the road and they have a league-high seven remaining back-to-backs. Both of their remaining games against the second-place Celtics, including Wednesday's ESPN game (8 p.m. ET), are in Boston.
- The Pistons also have a league-high seven remaining back-to-backs (starting with the second half of one on Wednesday in New Orleans). And in six of those seven games, their opponent will be rested. They only have two remaining games against teams chasing them for eighth in the East. Both of those - vs. Miami and at Milwaukee - are in late March.
- The Pacers still have some work to do to hold onto a playoff spot, and much of that work will need to be done in the next 15 days. After visiting the Spurs and Hawks on Wednesday and Sunday, the sixth-place Pacers have a stretch where five of six games are against teams currently seeded 8-11 in the East. That includes two games against the 11th-place Hornets, who just got starting center Cody Zeller back from a leg injury. After that stretch, the Pacers' only doubly-consequential game is April 6 against Milwaukee.
- The Bucks are just a game in the loss column out of eighth place and begin March with six of their first seven games at home, but will then be on the road for 12 of their final 17. That stretch starts with a six-game trip out west that includes two back-to-backs. They have one game left against both the seventh-place Bulls (having already won the season series) and eighth-place Pistons (against whom they're 2-1), and both of those games are at home in late March.
- Despite the absence of Kyle Lowry, the Raptors will have a chance to climb toward the top 10 in defensive efficiency. They rank 17th on that end of the floor heading into March, but have allowed only 0.4 more points per 100 possessions than the 12th-ranked Clippers and play only three of their remaining 22 games against top-10 offenses. Two of those three are this week's home-and-home series (Wednesday and Friday) with the Wizards. After Friday, their only game against a team that currently ranks in the top 10 on offense is their last game of the season in Cleveland. In between the Wizards series and the Cavs game is a stretch where 11 of 19 games are against bottom-10 offenses. Only the Nets have an easier schedule in regard to opposing offenses.
- The Wizards have the league's most road-heavy remaining schedule, with 16 of their 24 games away from the Verizon Center. They have two five-game trips out West, with the first including two back-to-backs and the second beginning with the second game of a home-road back-to-back in Cleveland.
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