For the moment, Blazers are closest foe in race

Friday, March 18, 2011
By: Jim Eichenhofer,

At least for now – with “now” possibly meaning only the next 24 to 48 hours – there has finally been some separation created between the pack of teams in the 5-8 slots of the Western Conference standings. Denver (41-27) has gained a two-game lead for fifth place in the West over Portland (39-29) and New Orleans (40-30), while eighth-place Memphis (37-32) has dropped 2.5 games behind the Hornets and Trail Blazers.

New Orleans and Portland are both idle Friday, before hosting Eastern Conference opponents on Saturday. The Hornets face the Boston Celtics at 7 p.m. Saturday in the New Orleans Arena, while the Trail Blazers take on the Philadelphia 76ers at 9 p.m. (Central time) later that night. By the way, one recent question that has popped up related to the Hornets and Trail Blazers is “why is Portland listed ahead of New Orleans in the standings, even though both teams are 10 games over .500 and the Hornets hold the tiebreaker?” The reason is because the order of the official NBA standings is based on winning percentage. At the moment, Portland has played two fewer games, but its .574 percentage is marginally better than New Orleans’ .571.

The Hornets do currently hold the tiebreaker on the Trail Blazers based on their 2-1 head-to-head advantage, but to maintain it the Hornets will need to defeat the Trail Blazers on March 30 in New Orleans. If Portland wins that March 30 game, the second tiebreaking step is conference record, which is almost guaranteed to be in favor of the Trail Blazers if the clubs finish the 82-game schedule with the same overall record.

At 54-13, San Antonio has already sealed finishing the regular season with a better record than New Orleans, while the Lakers (48-20) and Mavericks (48-20) are nine games ahead, too large of a margin for the Hornets to realistically overcome. Here’s a closer look at the West race as it relates specifically to the Hornets:

4, OKLAHOMA CITY 44-23 (5.5 games ahead of New Orleans)
Season series: Thunder won 3-1.
Analysis: When you factor in that OKC already owns the tiebreaker on NOLA, the Thunder only need to go 6-9 over its remaining 15 games to ensure finishing ahead of the Hornets in the standings (and that’s even if the Hornets win all 12 of their remaining games). Given OKC’s 8-2 record over its last 10 games, it’s not going out on much of a limb to believe that the Thunder will easily be able to accomplish a 6-9 close to the regular season, meaning New Orleans’ chances of gaining homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs are virtually nonexistent.

5, DENVER 41-27 (2 games ahead of New Orleans)
Season series: Hornets won 2-1.
Analysis: The Nuggets are a stunning 9-2 since the Carmelo Anthony trade, passing several teams in the West standings during their post-All-Star break surge. Denver has two very difficult segments of its remaining schedule, including a back-to-back in Florida tonight at Orlando and Saturday in Miami. The Nuggets also have a brutal four-game stretch from April 3-8 (at Lakers, vs. Thunder, at Mavericks, at Thunder).

6, PORTLAND 39-29 (tied with New Orleans)
Season series: Hornets lead 2-1. Remaining game: March 30 at New Orleans.
Analysis: As mentioned above, the Hornets own the tiebreaker for now, but if the Trail Blazers prevail in the Big Easy on March 30, they’re extremely likely to wrest that advantage away from the Hornets, based on conference record. The schedulemaker did Portland no favors – the Blazers still have a total of seven games against the top four teams in the Western Conference (2 vs. Spurs, 1 vs. Mavs, 2 vs. Lakers, 2 vs. Thunder). By comparison, the Hornets only have two games left against that group (1 vs. Mavs, 1 vs. Lakers).

7, NEW ORLEANS 40-30
Analysis: Since a very rough stretch in February and early March, the Hornets have won five of their last seven games. They’ll need to continue to play at a high level to finish the regular season in strong fashion, because the remaining schedule does not include any opponents who are out of playoff contention. However, unlike teams such as Portland, New Orleans’ slate is primarily against teams in slots 5-10 of the West standings, instead of the elite group that includes San Antonio, the Lakers and Dallas. The schedule is also favorable from a home-road standpoint, with only five away games remaining.

8, MEMPHIS 37-32 (2.5 games behind New Orleans)
Season series: Hornets lead 2-0. Remaining games: April 1 at New Orleans, April 10 at Memphis.
Analysis: The Hornets only need to win one of the final two matchups against the Grizzlies to secure the tiebreaking edge. If the Southwest Division rival Grizzlies win April 1 and April 10, the next tiebreaker is division record, which would almost certainly go in favor of the Hornets. The best division record Memphis can finish with is 8-8, while New Orleans is currently 8-4 in-division. Aside from the two meetings against the Grizzlies, the Hornets’ other remaining divisional games are vs. Houston and at Dallas. The Grizzlies still have a division home game vs. San Antonio.

9, UTAH 36-33 (3.5 games behind New Orleans)
Season series: Tied 1-1. Remaining games: March 24 at Utah, April 11 at New Orleans.
Analysis: The Jazz have a 5-10 record since Jerry Sloan resigned as head coach, causing them to plummet in the standings to the point where they’re not even assured of making the postseason. However, Utah is back within a game of eighth place following two straight wins over Philadelphia and Minnesota. A critical three-game, four-day road trip for Utah begins Sunday, when it travels to Houston, followed by visits to Memphis and Oklahoma City. Twenty-five hours after playing at OKC, the Jazz host the Hornets in the March 24 matchup.

10, HOUSTON 35-34 (4.5 games behind New Orleans)
Season series: Hornets lead 2-1, Hornets have clinched tiebreaker based on division record. Remaining game: April 6 at New Orleans.
Analysis: Even if the Rockets were to go undefeated the rest of the way at 13-0, the Hornets could surpass them by going 8-4 or better. To put it in more realistic terms, if New Orleans merely splits its final dozen games at 6-6, Houston would have to compile a 12-1 record to surpass the Hornets in the final standings. From a positive Rockets standpoint, eight of their final 13 games are at home and they’ve been playing very well since the All-Star break.

11, PHOENIX 33-33 (5 games behind New Orleans)
Season series: Tied 1-1. Remaining games: March 25 at Phoenix, April 8 at New Orleans.
Analysis: The Suns are on a four-game losing streak and 2-6 in March, a costly stretch for Phoenix that enabled New Orleans to build a five-game advantage. The Hornets’ magic number to clinch a playoff berth is down to 10. Since the best record Utah and Phoenix can attain is 49-33, if the Hornets get to 50 wins they are guaranteed to make the postseason, regardless of what happens in other games.