With seven nights remaining on the regular season schedule, there is very little set in stone in terms of the Western Conference playoff seeding. However, we learned at least two things from Wednesdays results: Dallas is in the postseason, eliminating Phoenix; and the best seed New Orleans can achieve is a No. 3, because the Lakers and Nuggets are both guaranteed to finish with a better record than the Hornets.
The Hornets defeat last night to Phoenix was also a damaging one in their bid to earn homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. New Orleans is now two games apiece behind San Antonio, Houston and Portland. The Hornets would have to surpass at least two of those three teams to move into the fourth slot. At this point, a more pressing concern may be the distinct possibility of New Orleans dropping to seventh or eighth place, with the latter scenario being accompanied by an unenviable first-round matchup against the Lakers.
A look at the current Western Conference standings and seedings race (all records are entering Thursdays games):
1, L.A. LAKERS 62-16 (clinched No. 1 seed)
Season series vs. Hornets: Lakers won 3-1.
2, DENVER 53-26 (4.5 games ahead of New Orleans)
Season series vs. Hornets: Tied 2-2.
Nuggets cannot be caught by the Hornets now, since the best the Hornets can finish is 52-30. Denvers magic number to clinch the Northwest Division is down to 1. The Nuggets can lock up the No. 2 seed in the West by winning at least two of their final three games.
3, SAN ANTONIO 50-28 (2 games ahead of New Orleans)
Season series vs. Hornets: Hornets lead 2-1. Final meeting is Wednesday in San Antonio.
Based on the tiebreaker, the Hornets would only need to be within one game of San Antonio in the standings entering the season finale to have a chance to overtake the Spurs. San Antonios next three games are vs. Jazz, at Kings, at Warriors.
4, HOUSTON 50-28 (2 games ahead of New Orleans)
Season series vs. Hornets: Rockets lead 2-1. Final meeting is Monday in Houston.
Regardless of what happens in other games, the Rockets can guarantee that they finish in front of the Hornets simply by winning the Monday head-to-head matchup vs. New Orleans. Houstons other three games are at Sacramento, at Golden State and at Dallas.
5, PORTLAND 50-28 (2 games ahead of New Orleans)
Season series vs. Hornets: Tied 2-2, but New Orleans is guaranteed the tiebreaking advantage, based on conference record.
For the Hornets to have a shot to catch the Trail Blazers, it will require a few stumbles in the Rose Garden for Portland. Three of the Blazers four remaining games are on their home floor; their lone road game is at the Clippers.
6, NEW ORLEANS 48-30
Mathematically, Hornets can still finish anywhere between 3 and 8 seed. Even in a best-case scenario of going 4-0 the rest of the schedule, in order to move up from their current sixth seed, theyd need at least one of the following to happen: San Antonio finishing 2-2 or worse; Houston finishing 2-2 or worse; or Portland finishing 2-2 or worse.
7, UTAH 47-31 (1 game behind New Orleans)
Season series vs. Hornets: Jazz won 3-0.
Based purely on Utahs drastic difference in success at home (32-7 at EnergySolutions Arena) compared to on the road (15-24), the Jazzs most likely finish would be 2-2. Utah hosts the Warriors and Clippers, but visits the Spurs and Lakers. If Utah goes 2-2, New Orleans would have to go at least 2-2 in its final four games to remain ahead of the Jazz.
8, DALLAS 47-31 (1 game behind New Orleans)
Season series vs. Hornets: Hornets lead 2-0. Third meeting is Friday in Dallas, final meeting is Sunday in New Orleans.
The Hornets would virtually assure themselves of finishing ahead of the Mavericks by merely splitting those two games coming up on the weekend, and a Hornets sweep would erase any doubt. However, if the Hornets and Mavs split, Dallas could still finish ahead of New Orleans with the combination of Maverick wins over the Timberwolves and Rockets in Dallas' final two games, along with Hornets defeats to the Rockets and Spurs.
Thursday's key games (all times Central):
Houston (50-28) at Sacramento, 9 p.m.
Denver (53-26) at L.A. Lakers (62-16), 9:30 p.m.