With only seven days remaining in the 2010-11 regular season, the Hornets are officially in the Western Conference playoffs, but their Round 1 opponent is still anyone's guess. If the season ended this afternoon, New Orleans (45-33) would earn the sixth seed, matched up against third-seeded Dallas (53-25), but thats very subject to change. For example, if Portland (45-33) defeats Utah late tonight, the Trail Blazers will inch a half-game ahead of the Hornets, dropping NOLA at least temporarily to seventh and a projected matchup vs. the second-seeded Lakers.
Current No. 4 Oklahoma City (52-26) and San Antonio (60-19) are also possibilities, with the latter happening only if New Orleans ends up dropping to eighth (the Spurs have already wrapped up the No. 1 seed). Though the Hornets probably need to go just 2-2 the rest of the way to avoid eighth place, a loss Sunday at Memphis (44-34) would give the Grizzlies a legitimate chance to leapfrog NOLA in the standings. The potential scenario that could deliver a Hornets-Thunder Round 1 matchup would require the Hornets to remain No. 6, with the Thunder overtaking the Mavericks for the No. 3 seed.
In other words, there are still an infinite number of permutations that could take place over the final few days of the regular season. Its likely that the Hornets final seeding and opponent won't be determined until Wednesday, after they visit the Mavericks for Game 82. Complicating matters further: Memphis plays at Portland on Tuesday, Game 81 for both clubs.
The highest seed New Orleans can mathematically attain is No. 5, with the lowest being No. 8 (Note: Houston is not eliminated from the playoffs yet, because the Rockets still can catch the Grizzlies). Heres a closer look at the current race as it relates specifically to the Hornets:
5, DENVER 48-30 (3 games ahead of New Orleans)
Season series: Hornets won 2-1.
Remaining games: at Oklahoma City (Friday), vs. Minnesota (Saturday), vs. Golden State (Monday), at Utah (Wednesday).
Analysis: The Nuggets finish with three consecutive games against teams out of playoff contention. If they go 2-2 or better the rest of the way, theyll automatically finish ahead of the Hornets. Given Denvers excellent record since the Carmelo Anthony trade, that seems very likely.
6, NEW ORLEANS 45-33
Remaining games: vs. Phoenix (Friday), at Memphis (Sunday), vs. Utah (Monday), at Dallas (Wednesday).
Analysis: By going 4-0, the Hornets would guarantee finishing no lower than the sixth seed. However, if they lose at least once, it opens the door for the Trail Blazers to move ahead in the standings. Partly because Portland and Memphis face each other Tuesday, the Hornets can finish no lower than No. 7 if they go 3-1. A 2-2 mark the rest of the way would give Memphis a slim chance to also move ahead of New Orleans, but 2-2 probably would still prevent NOLA from finishing worse than seventh.
7, PORTLAND 45-33 (tied with New Orleans)
Season series: Hornets won 3-1.
Remaining games: at Utah (Thursday), vs. Lakers (Friday), vs. Memphis (Tuesday), at Golden State (Wednesday).
Analysis: The Trail Blazers schedule is essentially the same as the Hornets in terms of difficulty, with an even home-road split. It also has an even opponent mix of two playoff qualifiers and two out-of-contention clubs. With the Hornets holding the tiebreaker on the Blazers, it means Portland must win at least one more game the rest of the way than New Orleans to earn a better seed.
8, MEMPHIS 44-34 (1 game behind New Orleans)
Season series: Hornets lead 2-1, Hornets have clinched tiebreaker based on division record. Remaining game: Sunday at Memphis.
Remaining games: vs. Sacramento (Friday), vs. New Orleans (Sunday), at Portland (Tuesday), at Clippers (Wednesday).
Analysis: Since the Hornets own the tiebreaker on the Grizzlies, it means Memphis must win at least two more games than New Orleans the rest of the way to attain a better seed. Thats why a 3-1 record for New Orleans makes it impossible for Memphis to catch the Hornets. If the Hornets go 2-2, the Grizzlies would have to go 4-0. If the Hornets beat the Grizzlies head-to-head on Sunday, the only way Memphis finishes ahead of New Orleans would be for Memphis to win all of its other three games, with New Orleans losing all of its other three games.