Pelicans begin pivotal stretch of schedule in San Antonio on Thursday

by Jim Eichenhofer

SAN ANTONIO – Given the tightness and corresponding daily fluctuations of the Western Conference playoff race, New Orleans third-year head coach Alvin Gentry has said often recently that he won't be surprised if matters still aren’t settled until April 11, the final day of the regular season. While that ultimately may be the case four weeks from today, no NBA team would prefer to have its postseason fate determined in Game 82, as was the case for the Pelicans three years ago, when a final-night win secured a playoff berth.

If anything, the stakes are even higher in the West this season, because for the first time in recent NBA memory, in mid-March there is scant room between fourth and 10th place in the standings. That means a West team could conceivably enter April with the same chance of earning homecourt advantage as missing the postseason altogether, which may be an unprecedented scenario in the recent history of the league.

For New Orleans (39-28), what should make the final 15 games so intriguing is the range of possibilities that could occur, including the Pelicans potentially earning a top-four seed and the homecourt edge in a playoff series for the first time in 10 years. New Orleans also does not have a large cushion in terms of qualifying for the playoffs, with only a 1.5-game lead over eighth- and ninth-place Utah and San Antonio, both 38-30.

That’s one reason why Thursday’s New Orleans-San Antonio matchup is important for both teams; the Pelicans have a chance to go up by three games on the Spurs in the loss column, as well as seal a tiebreaking advantage (they already lead the season series 2-0).

What might make the difference during this four-week stretch run for the eight teams currently in spots 3 through 10? Well for one, each team has at least one very difficult segment on their remaining schedule. Over the next month, that could be a factor that determines whether players and coaches spend opening weekend of the NBA playoffs in their home arena, or in their offseason homes.

3, PORTLAND 41-26 (2 games ahead of New Orleans)

Pivotal stretch: The Trail Blazers are on fire, winners of 10 in a row, but play eight games out of 12 on the road between this Sunday and April 9. That span begins with a fairly brutal five-game stretch of at Clippers, vs. Houston, vs. Boston, at Oklahoma City, at New Orleans.

Tiebreaking status vs. Pelicans: New Orleans leads the head-to-head series 2-1, with one matchup remaining March 27 in the Smoothie King Center. The Pelicans will likely need to win on March 27 to gain a tiebreaker on the Blazers, because Portland has a superior conference record.

4, OKLAHOMA CITY 41-29 (0.5 game ahead of New Orleans)

Pivotal stretch: The Thunder need to carry the momentum of an active four-game winning streak into next week, when they go on a two-game road trip against the East’s top two teams, Toronto and Boston. After that, they only play twice from March 21-28, so it would be very beneficial for OKC to improve or maintain its current top-four status before some forced scoreboard-watching goes into effect.

Tiebreaker status vs. Pelicans: New Orleans has clinched the tiebreaking edge, based on a 2-0 lead in head-to-head games, with only one matchup remaining April 1 in the Smoothie King Center.

5, NEW ORLEANS 39-28

Pivotal stretch: Right now may be the most challenging of the remaining slate. Over the next four days, the Pelicans visit 20-consecutive-year playoff participant San Antonio, then host a weekend back-to-back vs. the teams with the NBA’s best record (Houston) and the East’s second-best record (Boston). That’s followed by a rare three-games-in-three-days at Smoothie King Center, necessitated by a rescheduled game.

Tiebreaker status overview: The Pelicans have clinched it vs. OKC (2-0, 1 matchup left) and lead the season series vs. San Antonio (2-0, 2 left), Portland (2-1, 1 left) and the Clippers (2-1, 1 left). They’ve lost the tiebreaker to Minnesota (0-4), Denver (1-2) and Utah (1-3).

6, MINNESOTA 40-29 (tied with New Orleans, but has lower overall winning percentage by .002)

Pivotal stretch: The Timberwolves still have a generous six games remaining against teams out of realistic playoff contention. Their toughest schedule span is probably next, featuring a weekend back-to-back at San Antonio and vs. Houston, followed by a Tuesday home game vs. the Clippers.

Tiebreaker status vs. Pelicans: Minnesota won it based on a 4-0 season-series sweep.

7, LA CLIPPERS 37-29 (1.5 games behind New Orleans)

Pivotal stretch: The Clippers have an oddly high number of games left vs. the East (five), but are entering a stretch now of three straight games against teams just ahead of them in the standings. Between Friday and Tuesday, they visit OKC, host Portland, then visit Minnesota.

Tiebreaker status vs. Pelicans: New Orleans leads the season series 2-1, with one matchup remaining in Game 81 for both teams, on April 9 at Staples Center.

8, UTAH 38-30 (1.5 games behind New Orleans)

Pivotal stretch: Like Minnesota, the Jazz could benefit from a slew of matchups with non-contenders, including their next four games. The most challenging stretch for Utah occurs March 23-28, when they play at San Antonio, at Golden State and host Boston.

Tiebreaker status vs. Pelicans: Utah won it based on a 3-1 season-series victory.

9, SAN ANTONIO 38-30 (1.5 games behind New Orleans)

Pivotal stretch: Opponent-wise, no one in this group has a more daunting slate than the Spurs, whose next 10 games are all against teams with winning records. It could help San Antonio that seven of those are in the AT&T Center.

Tiebreaker status vs. Pelicans: New Orleans leads the season series 2-0, with two matchups remaining, including Thursday in San Antonio and April 11 at New Orleans. The latter is the regular season finale for both Southwest Division squads.

10, DENVER 37-31 (2.5 games behind New Orleans)

Pivotal stretch: The Nuggets have been a bad road team all season (11-21 record), which is not good news considering they have a seven-game road trip remaining, which constitutes half of their 14 games left. Even worse, five of the seven hosts on that trip are currently in playoff position.

Tiebreaker status vs. Pelicans: Denver won it based on a 2-1 season-series victory.