With only eight games remaining on their regular season schedule, the New Orleans Hornets are just a half game out of sixth place in the Western Conference, but only one game ahead of eighth place. This much is crystal clear, though: if the Hornets (42-32) can reach the 47-win mark by the end of the regular season, they are guaranteed to qualify for the 2011 NBA postseason.
The best ninth-place Houston (38-35) can finish is 47-35, but New Orleans already has claimed the tiebreaker on the Rockets, based on a better division record. The best 10th-place Phoenix (36-36) can finish is 46-36. In other words, if the Hornets can post five victories over their final eight games, regardless of other outcomes, theyre in the playoffs.
With a little over two weeks remaining in the regular season, San Antonio, the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas have all assured themselves of finishing ahead of New Orleans in the standings. Oklahoma City is on the verge of doing so, needing only two wins in its final 10 games. The rest of the race is infinitely tighter. Heres a closer look at the West playoff chase as it relates specifically to the Hornets:
5, DENVER 44-29 (2.5 games ahead of New Orleans)
Season series: Hornets won 2-1.
Analysis: The Nuggets appear to be showing no signs of letting up and have a mostly favorable schedule the rest of the way. Denver could solidify its status as a No. 5 seed with upcoming consecutive games against Sacramento this week, though the Kings did just put together an impressive 4-1 road trip.
6, PORTLAND 42-31 (0.5 game ahead of New Orleans)
Season series: Hornets lead 2-1. Remaining game: March 30 at New Orleans.
Analysis: Its doubtful any team around the NBA has a more difficult close to the regular season than the Trail Blazers. Portland faces each of the top four Western Conference teams between tonight and April 8. The Hornets hopes of moving up to sixth place figure to be greatly contingent on beating the Blazers on Wednesday.
7, NEW ORLEANS 42-32
Analysis: Considering that the Hornets imminent five-game homestand concludes with games against ninth-place Houston and 10th-place Phoenix, its fairly likely New Orleans will have an opportunity to officially become a playoff team on its home floor. It would be the Hornets third postseason berth in the four years since returning full-time to NOLA.
8, MEMPHIS 41-33 (1 game behind New Orleans)
Season series: Hornets lead 2-0. Remaining games: April 1 at New Orleans, April 10 at Memphis.
Analysis: The Grizzlies remaining slate is the opposite of the Trail Blazers, including five games against non-playoff West teams (Golden State, Minnesota, Clippers twice, Sacramento). If Memphis beats all of the teams it should beat, it could put significant pressure on New Orleans and Portland to win or risk being leapfrogged in the standings.
9, HOUSTON 38-35 (3.5 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: Despite an outstanding run after the All-Star break, Houstons margin for error is beginning to shrink, with only nine games left on the schedule. The Rockets remaining docket is roughly average in terms of difficulty. A challenging three-game stretch between Wednesday and Sunday includes matchups at Philadelphia, vs. San Antonio and vs. Atlanta. Houston is at New Jersey tonight.
10, PHOENIX 36-36 (5 games behind New Orleans)
Season series: Hornets lead 2-1. Remaining game: April 8 at New Orleans.
Analysis: The Suns are now in a substantial hole in terms of qualifying for the playoffs, and more bad news comes in the form of their upcoming schedule. In the middle of their remaining 10 games is a brutal five-game road trip that includes trips to San Antonio, Chicago, New Orleans and Dallas (plus out-of-contention Minnesota). The Suns probably will need to go at least 3-2 on that unenviable trek to avoid elimination.
11, UTAH 36-38 (6 games behind New Orleans)
Season series: Hornets lead 2-1. Remaining game: April 11 at New Orleans.
Analysis: In terms of catching the Hornets, its now almost an impossibility for the Jazz. For example, if the Hornets prevail in the April 11 game vs. the Jazz, theyll finish ahead of Utah, even if the Hornets somehow lost every other game.