NOLA postseason magic number down to 3

Thursday, March 31, 2011
By: Jim Eichenhofer,

Wednesday night proved to be a best-case scenario for the New Orleans Hornets (43-32), beginning with a comeback against Portland (43-32) that enabled them to move into sixth place in the Western Conference. Meanwhile, ninth-place Houston (39-36) lost at Philadelphia, while 10th-place Phoenix (36-38) dropped a home game vs. Oklahoma City. As a result, New Orleans’ magic number to lock up a first postseason trip was sliced to 3.

As a result, there is a scenario in which the Hornets could guarantee themselves a playoff berth as early as Sunday evening. If they win both Friday vs. Memphis (7 p.m., New Orleans Arena) and Sunday vs. Indiana, they would only need one loss by Houston in the Rockets’ two weekend games to celebrate a postseason berth. Houston hosts San Antonio on Friday. On Sunday, Houston will host Atlanta, in a game that begins at 6 p.m., the same time as the Pacers and Hornets tip off in the Hive.

San Antonio (57-17) remains the likely No. 1 seed in the West, though the Spurs’ lead on the second-place Lakers (53-20) has dwindled to 3.5 games. Dallas (53-21) is half-game behind the Lakers, while the Mavericks lead fourth-place Oklahoma City (50-24) by 3 games. With Oklahoma City now boasting a five-game advantage over Denver (45-29) in the Northwest Division, the Thunder are poised to wrap up at least a No. 4 seed and homecourt advantage in the playoffs. With only seven games remaining, fifth place is the highest seed the Hornets can mathematically achieve.

Here’s an updated look at the West playoff chase as it relates specifically to the Hornets:

5, DENVER 45-29 (2.5 games ahead of New Orleans)
Season series: Hornets won 2-1.
Remaining schedule: at Sac, at LAL, OKC, at Dal, at OKC, MIN, GS, at Uta Analysis: Since the Hornets own the tiebreaker, they only need to equal the Nuggets’ record to overtake them in seeding, but that’s a difficult proposition given the math. For instance, even if Denver goes a mediocre 4-3, New Orleans would have to go 7-0.

6, NEW ORLEANS 43-32
Remaining schedule: MEM, IND, HOU, PHX, at Mem, UTA, at Dal Analysis: Regardless of other outcomes, if the Hornets go 3-4 or better the rest of the way, they are automatically in the playoffs. If they defeat the Rockets on April 6, they would only need to go 2-5 to ensure a postseason berth.

7, PORTLAND 43-32 (tied with New Orleans)
Season series: Hornets won 3-1.
Remaining schedule: OKC, DAL, GS, at Uta, LAL, MEM, at GS Analysis: The Trail Blazers’ remaining slate includes three games against top-four Western Conference teams, including the Thunder, Mavericks and Lakers. By comparison, the Hornets only face one team in that group, the Mavericks. Since Hornets-Mavericks is on the final day of the regular season, it’s conceivable Dallas may already have its playoff seed determined by then.

8, MEMPHIS 42-33 (1 game behind New Orleans)
Season series: Hornets lead 2-0. Remaining games: April 1 at New Orleans, April 10 at Memphis.
Remaining schedule: at NO, MIN, LAC, SAC, NO, at Por, at LAC Analysis: On paper, the Grizzlies have one of the most manageable schedules of any team. The Hornets have not officially wrapped up the tiebreaker, but for the Grizzlies to claim it, they’d need to win both head-to-head games over the Hornets, plus the Hornets would also have to lose division games April 6 to the Rockets and April 13 to the Mavericks. If all four of those outcomes happen, Memphis would earn the tiebreaking edge based on conference record.

9, HOUSTON 39-36 (4 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.
Remaining schedule: SA, ATL, SAC, at NO, LAC, DAL, at Min Analysis: One simple way to understand what it would take for the Rockets to surpass the Hornets in the standings is that Houston must win five more times than New Orleans over the remainder of the schedule. For example, if NOLA goes 2-5, Houston must go 7-0. That’s why if NOLA goes 3-4, it’s impossible for Houston to make up the necessary ground.

10, PHOENIX 36-38 (6.5 games behind New Orleans)
Season series: Hornets lead 2-1. Remaining game: April 8 at New Orleans.
Remaining schedule: LAC, at SA, at Chi, at Min, at NO, at Dal, MIN, SA Analysis: A brutal slate makes it an extremely tall order for the Suns to go 8-0. If that epic achievement happens, combined with the Hornets going 1-6 or worse, Phoenix would surpass NOLA.

11, UTAH 36-39 (7 games behind New Orleans)
Season series: Hornets lead 2-1. Remaining game: April 11 at New Orleans.
Remaining schedule: LAL, at Sac, at LAL, POR, at SA, at NO, DEN Analysis: Mathematically, the Jazz can still catch the Hornets, but the only way it can happen is a 7-0 close to the season by Utah and a 0-7 finish by New Orleans.