Sunday’s game critical in race to avoid 8 seed

Saturday, April 11, 2009
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com

Although we still don’t know any of the Western Conference’s first-round playoff matchups – and probably won’t until the final day of the regular season – last night’s results helped crystallize a few things for New Orleans.

One, the Hornets now have virtually no chance to host Game 1 of their 2009 first-round playoff series. The Rockets (52-28), Trail Blazers (51-28) and Spurs (51-28) each gained a full game on the Hornets yesterday. Therefore, the Hornets (48-31) can no longer catch the Rockets. To move in front of both the Blazers and Spurs and secure the West’s fourth seed, the Hornets would need to go 3-0 and have both the Blazers and Spurs go 0-3 the rest of the way, an extremely unlikely scenario.

As a result, the focus for New Orleans (48-31), Dallas (48-31) and Utah (47-32) has turned to moving out of the unenviable eighth spot. With the Lakers appearing to be head and shoulders above everyone in the West at the moment, it’s understandable that no one would want to be matched up against Los Angeles and Kobe Bryant in the opening round.

That makes Sunday’s Dallas at New Orleans game a huge one, especially for the Hornets. Since Utah’s next two games are in EnergySolutions Arena against Golden State (tonight) and the Clippers, it’s likely that the loser of Sunday’s Mavs-Hornets tilt will fall to eighth place and face an uphill climb in trying to avoid the Lakers.

Why is Sunday’s game at least slightly more important for New Orleans than Dallas? Look at the remaining schedules. On paper, the Mavericks have an infinitely easier close to the regular season, hosting Minnesota and Houston. Meanwhile, the Hornets have road games at Houston and San Antonio. If New Orleans loses its Easter game against Dallas, the Hornets could easily be the eighth seed unless they can get some unexpected help – from out-of-contention West clubs – in remaining games involving the Jazz and Mavericks.

A look at the current Western Conference standings and seedings race (all records are entering Saturday’s games):

WESTERN CONFERENCE
1, L.A. LAKERS 63-17 (clinched No. 1 seed)
Season series vs. Hornets: Lakers won 3-1.

2, DENVER 53-27 (will finish ahead of New Orleans)
Season series vs. Hornets: Tied 2-2.
Denver’s magic number to win the Northwest Division is down to 1. The Nuggets can also lock up the No. 2 seed in the West by winning their final two games.

3, HOUSTON 52-28 (will finish ahead of New Orleans)
Season series vs. Hornets: Rockets lead 2-1. Final meeting is Monday in Houston.
Houston’s final two games are vs. New Orleans and at Dallas. The Rockets own the tiebreaker over Portland, but it’s yet to be determined whether they will have the tiebreaking edge on San Antonio or not.

4, PORTLAND 51-28 (3 games ahead of New Orleans)
Season series vs. Hornets: Tied 2-2, but New Orleans is guaranteed the tiebreaking advantage, based on conference record.
Blazers appear to be in excellent position, with games remaining at Clippers, vs. Thunder, vs. Nuggets. They would lose a tiebreaker to Houston, but own tiebreaking edge vs. San Antonio based on a 3-1 season-series victory.

5, SAN ANTONIO 51-28 (3 games ahead of New Orleans)
Season series vs. Hornets: Hornets lead 2-1. Final meeting is Wednesday in San Antonio.
Regardless of what else happens, Spurs can guarantee that they’ll finish ahead of the Hornets by winning either Sunday in Sacramento or Monday at Golden State.

6, NEW ORLEANS 48-31
Mathematically, Hornets can still finish anywhere between 4 and 8 seed. If they defeat the Mavericks on Sunday, their most likely seed would be either 6 or 7 – though they still could wind up 8 even after a Sunday victory. If they lose to the Mavericks on Sunday, their most likely seed may be 8.

7, DALLAS 48-31 (tied with New Orleans)
Season series vs. Hornets: Hornets lead 2-1. Final meeting is Sunday in New Orleans.
Even if the Mavericks defeat the Hornets on Sunday, the Hornets will own the tiebreaking advantage over the Mavs, based on division record. However, that only applies if there is a two-way tie between the Hornets and Mavericks. There is also a possibility of a three-way tie between the Hornets, Mavericks and Jazz.

8, UTAH 47-32 (1 game behind New Orleans)
Season series vs. Hornets: Jazz won 3-0.
The schedule appears very favorable for the Jazz, who host Golden State (tonight) and the Clippers (Monday), followed by a visit to the Lakers (Tuesday). Although a trip to the Staples Center to face the West’s best team seems daunting at first glance, will Phil Jackson rest his starters in game No. 82 for the Lakers? Utah could benefit from that possibility.

Key games Saturday (all times Central):
Golden State at Utah (47-32), 8 p.m.
Portland (51-28) at L.A. Clippers, 9:30 p.m.