West rivals busy during NOLA's four-day hiatus

Monday, March 21, 2011
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com

Despite only 11 games remaining on the regular season schedule, the Hornets could realistically finish anywhere from fifth place in the Western Conference to out of the playoffs altogether. There is still so much remaining to be decided, but during this four-day stretch between Saturday’s defeat vs. Boston and Thursday’s visit to Utah, New Orleans (40-31) won’t be involved in any of the deciding. Instead, Hornets fans can sit back and scoreboard-watch, as each of the other clubs vying for playoff positioning plays once or twice.

A breakdown of the other noteworthy contenders in relation to the Hornets, along with who they’ll play over the next few days (all times Central), before New Orleans even gets to directly impact the race Thursday in Salt Lake City:

5, DENVER 41-29 (1.5 games ahead of New Orleans)
Nuggets host the Raptors at 8 p.m. tonight, then the Spurs on Wednesday in a nationally-televised ESPN game. The next week-plus features a relatively soft-looking slate for Denver, with two games vs. Sacramento and a home game vs. Washington.

6, PORTLAND 40-30 (0.5 game ahead of New Orleans)
Trail Blazers only play once, hosting the Wizards on Tuesday in an on-paper cakewalk, given that Washington is 1-31 on the road this season. A Wizards upset would move the Hornets into sixth place in the West, because NOLA currently owns the tiebreaker over Portland.

7, NEW ORLEANS 40-31
Hornets have three more days off from game action. Starting Thursday, they play back-to-back road games against the West’s 11th- and 10th-place teams, the Jazz and Suns. New Orleans’ magic number to clinch a playoff berth remains 10, because Phoenix won twice on the weekend.

8, MEMPHIS 38-32 (1.5 games behind New Orleans)
In a pivotal stretch for the Grizzlies, they host Utah tonight (7 p.m.), then visit Boston on Wednesday. By prevailing in both games, Memphis could pull within just a half game of New Orleans in the standings before the Hornets play at the Jazz. Later in the week, Memphis has two more brutal tests, at Chicago and vs. San Antonio.

9, HOUSTON 37-34 (3 games behind New Orleans)
Rockets only have one game, home Wednesday vs. Golden State. Houston must surpass NOLA in the standings record-wise, because the Hornets have clinched the tiebreaker.

10, PHOENIX 35-33 (3.5 games behind New Orleans)
The next few days are a combination of extremely difficult (at Lakers on Tuesday) and easy on paper (home vs. Raptors on Wednesday, though Toronto won at OKC yesterday). A loss in either game by the Suns will reduce the Hornets’ magic number to clinch a playoff berth from 10.

11, UTAH 36-34 (3.5 games behind New Orleans)
The Jazz are in an unenviable situation schedule-wise, visiting Memphis tonight and Oklahoma City on Wednesday. Utah needs to win at least one to avoid dropping to .500 and falling into a potentially insurmountable hole.