Playoff Race Update: What Is At Stake When The Trail Blazers Host The Nuggets

by Casey Holdahl
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Even though most were playing more attention to the Elite 8 NCAA Tournament games than the NBA's schedule Sunday night, it ended up being a rather good day for the Portland Trail Blazers' playoff hopes. Between the Trail Blazers dispatching the Lakers 97-81 at Staples Center and the Nuggets getting blown out by the Pelicans at the Pepsi Center, Portland moved into a tie with Denver for 8th-place in the Western Conference standings with nine games to play. Given that, Tuesday's game between the Nuggets and the Trail Blazers at the Moda Center will likely go a long way toward determining which team will end up with the eighth and final playoff spot out West and which team will be watching from home, though the Mavericks, Pelicans, Timberwolves and Kings are all still in the mix for the eight-spot (though that's little more than a slim mathematical probability for the Timberwolves and Kings).

But as you may have heard, the two-team tiebreaker between the Trail Blazers and Nuggets has already been determined, even though the season series would be tied at 2-2 should the Nuggets win Tuesday night's game. The reason is as such...

If the season series ends in a 2-2 tie (which it would be the case if the Nuggets defeated the Trail Blazers Tuesday night), the next tiebreaker is division record (at least when the two teams are in the same division, as is the case here). Currently the Trail Blazers have a markedly better Northwest Division record at 8-3 than the Nuggets' Northwest Division record of 5-8, though both teams could conceivably finish with division records of 8-8 in the event that Portland loses their five remaining division games (vs. Nuggets, @ Timberwolves, @ Jazz, vs. Timberwolves, vs. Jazz) and Denver wins their three remaining division games (@ Trail Blazers, vs. Thunder, @ Thunder). So if both teams end up tied at 8-8 in division, the next tiebreaker is conference record.

And this is where it gets a little tricky. The Trail Blazers are currently 22-21 in conference with all nine of their remaining games to be played against Western Conference teams while the Nuggets are 20-25 with seven of their remaining nine games to be played against West teams, so in theory, Denver could still finish with a better conference record than Portland. But obviously the teams have to be tied in overall record at the end of the regular season for the tiebreaker to come into play, and a scenario in which the Trail Blazers and Nuggets tie for overall record and division record but in which the Nuggets end with a better conference record does not exist.

So long story short, if the Trail Blazers own the tiebreaker with the Nuggets regardless of which team wins Tuesday night, though the team that wins that game will have a 1.0 game lead in the standings and the inside track on winning the eight-seed outright, thus making the tiebreaker inconsequential. And probably more importantly, the Trail Blazers clinch the second tiebreaker, which is division record, with any Northwest Division win or any Nuggets Northwest Division loss. One of those things is almost certain to happen before the end of the season.

But one more thing. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the Trail Blazers DO NOT necessarily possess the tiebreaker over the Nuggets should at least three teams end up tied for 8th. The tiebreaker protocol changes when there are more than two teams tied with the same overall record, and according to Elias Sports Bureau,  there are "scenarios in which Portland and Denver finish tied with one or more teams (for instance Dallas or New Orleans) and Portland would not be preferred over Denver in that tiebreaker."

As for the overall race for the 8th-seed, it's worth noting that we're reaching the point of the season in which teams at the top of the standings might not have much, if anything, to play for in the waning days of the regular season. For instance, will the Spurs, a team that trails the Warriors by 2.5 games for the top spot in the West, have a chance to move up or down regardless of the outcome of their game versus the Trail Blazers on April 10? Will the Grizzlies, a team that trails the Thunder by 1.5 games for the 6th-seed but has almost no chance of falling past the 7th-seed, have a reason to win in their final game of the regular season versus the Mavericks, a team that trails Portland by 2.5 games for the 8th-seed? It's all hypothetical, but it's at least worth considering if you're trying to use strength of remaining schedule as a reason for why you think/don't think the Trail Blazers will/won't make the postseason.

With all of that out of the way, here's the playoff race update as of games played on March 26. And while they haven't been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, both the Timberwolves and Kings have been dropped from the standings update due to being 6.5 and 7.0 games, respectively, back from eighth.

Oklahoma City Thunder, 6th-place in the Western Conference

Overall record: 41-31 | Conference record: 25-20 | Division record: 8-5
Home record: 27-10 | Away record: 14-21 | Games back: 17.5

Remaining home games: 4 (3/31 vs. Spurs, 4/2 vs. Hornets, 4/4 vs. Bucks, 4/12 vs. Nuggets)
Remaining road games: 6 (3/27 at Mavericks, 3/29 at Magic, 4/5 at Grizzlies, 4/7 at Suns, 4/9 at Nuggets, 4/11 at Timberwolves)

Remaining games versus teams under .500: 3 (2 home, 1 away)
Remaining games versus teams over .500: 7 (2 home, 5 away)

Tiebreaker: The Trail Blazers own the tiebreaker versus the Thunder thanks to winning the season series 3-1

Memphis Grizzlies, 7th-place in the Western Conference

Overall record: 40-33 | Conference record: 27-19 | Division record: 7-6
Home record: 21-14 | Away record: 19-16 | Games back: 19

Remaining home games: 6 (3/29 vs. Pacers, 3/31 vs. Mavericks, 4/5 vs. Thunder, 4/7 vs. Knicks, 4/9 vs Pistons, 4/12 vs. Mavericks)
Remaining road games: 3 (3/27 at Kings, 4/2 at Lakers, 4/4 at Spurs)

Remaining games versus teams under .500: 3 (2 home, 1 away)
Remaining games versus teams over .500: 6 (4 home, 2 away)

Tiebreaker: The Trail Blazers own the tiebreaker versus the Grizzlies thanks to winning the season series 2-1

Portland Trail Blazers, tied for 8th-place in the Western Conference

Overall record: 35-38 | Conference record: 22-21 | Division record: 8-3
Home record: 19-15 | Away record: 16-23 | Games back: 24

Remaining home games: 7 (3/28 vs. Nuggets, 3/30 vs. Rockets, 4/1 vs. Suns, 4/6 vs. Timberwolves, 4/8 vs. Jazz, 4/10 vs. Spurs, 4/12 vs, Pelicans.)
Remaining road games: 2 (4/3 at Timberwolves, 4/4 at Jazz)

Remaining games versus teams under .500: 4 (3 home, 1 away)
Remaining games versus teams over .500: 5 (4 home, 1 away)

Denver Nuggets, tied for 8th-place in the Western Conference

Overall record: 35-38 | Conference record: 20-25 | Division record: 5-8
Home record: 21-18 | Away record: 14-20 | Games back: 24

Remaining home games: 2 (4/7 Pelicans, 4/9 vs. Thunder)
Remaining road games: 7 (3/28 at Trail Blazers, 3/31 at Hornets, 4/2 at Heat, 4/4 at Pelicans, 4/5 at Rockets, 4/11 at Mavericks, 4/12 at Thunder)

Remaining games versus teams under .500: 3 (1 home, 2 away)
Remaining games versus teams over .500: 6 (1 home, 5 away)

Tiebreaker: The Trail Blazers currently lead the season series with the Nuggets 2-1 with one game to be played March 28 at the Moda Center

Dallas Mavericks, 10th-place in the Western Conference

Overall record: 31-41 | Conference record: 18-25 | Division record: 4-8
Home record: 21-17 | Away record: 10-24 | Games back: 27.5

Remaining home games: 3 (3/27 vs. Thunder, 4/7 vs. Spurs, 4/11 vs. Nuggets)
Remaining road games: 7 (3/29 at Pelicans, 3/31 at Grizzlies, 4/2 at Buckets, 4/4 at Kings, 4/5 at Clippers, 4/9 at Suns, 4/12 at Grizzlies)

Remaining games versus teams under .500: 6 (2 home, 4 away)
Remaining games versus teams over .500: 4 (1 home, 3 away)

Tiebreaker: The Trail Blazers and Mavericks tied their season series 2-2, neither team will win their division and since they are not in the same division, the tiebreaker goes to better winning percentage against teams in own conference. Currently, the Trail Blazers have the better Western Conference record at 22-21 (the Mavericks conference record 18-25) so at this time, Portland owns the tiebreaker.

New Orleans Pelicans, 11th-place in the Western Conference

Overall record: 31-42 | Conference record: 17-27 | Division record: 5-10
Home record: 19-18 | Away record: 12-24 | Games back: 28

Remaining home games: 4 (3/29 vs. Mavericks, 3/31 vs. Kings, 4/2 vs. Bulls, 4/4 vs. Nuggets)
Remaining road games: 5 (3/27 at Jazz, 4/7 at Nuggets, 4/8 at Warriors, 4/11 at Lakers, 4/12 at Trail Blazers)

Remaining games versus teams under .500: 2 (0 home, 2 away)
Remaining games versus teams over .500: 7 (4 home, 3 away)

Tiebreaker: The Pelicans currently lead the season series 2-1 with one game in Portland to play

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