Playoff race breakdown: Trends, tiebreakers and future schedules in wild West
The second- and third-longest active playoff streaks are coming to an end this season. The Atlanta Hawks have made the playoffs in each of the last 10 seasons, while the Memphis Grizzlies have done it in each of the last seven. Currently, those two teams sit in last place in their respective conferences. The fourth-longest active streak, the six-year run belonging to the LA Clippers, is also in danger of coming to an end.
But just how safe is the the *third longest playoff streak in NBA history? The San Antonio Spurs have reached the postseason in each of the last 20 seasons and currently sit in fifth place in the Western Conference.
* The record belongs to the Philadelphia 76ers, who were in the postseason in each of their first 22 seasons (14 as the Syracuse Nationals), from 1950-71. The second longest streak (21 seasons) belongs to the Portland Trail Blazers (1983-2003).
In fifth place, the Spurs are just three games in the loss column ahead of the ninth-place Denver Nuggets. The Spurs are 3-8 since Feb. 1, they’ve lost seven of their last eight games against teams that currently have winning records, and they’ll be playing a lot more of those teams over the final five weeks of the season.
In regard to opponent strength, the Spurs have the league’s toughest remaining schedule, with 15 of their 18 remaining games against teams that currently have winning records. One of the other games is on the road against the Los Angeles Lakers, who are 18-8 over the last two months and just beat the Spurs (in San Antonio) on Saturday.
The Spurs have four games remaining (two apiece) against the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets. The first of those is Thursday in Oakland, the second game of Thursday’s TNT double-header (10:30 p.m. ET).
* Schuhmann: Critical time in East playoff chase, too
Trying to figure out if the Spurs could possibly miss the playoffs requires predicting what’s going to happen in the 113 games remaining that involve the eight teams currently sitting between third and 10th place in the West.
The playoff picture in the Western Conference is a wild scrum and making sense of it is probably an impossible task. We’ll do our best …
If the standings were based on per-game point differential, the Spurs would still be in third place in the West. They’re 37-27 with the point differential of a team that’s 40-24.
The Oklahoma City Thunder (37-29 with the point differential of a team that’s 40-26), Utah Jazz (35-30 with the point differential of a team that’s 38-27) and Minnesota Timberwolves (38-28 with the point differential of a team that’s 40-26) have also been better than their record. The New Orleans Pelicans (38-26 with the point differential of a team that’s 34-30) are on the opposite end of the spectrum.
If you take the records of these eight teams (the games they’ve won so far) and use their point differentials to project how they’ll do over the final five weeks of the season (ignoring strength of schedule), we’d have a three-way tie for fourth place, the Jazz would grab the No. 8 seed, and the Nuggets and Clippers would be heading to the Lottery …
- Portland: 49-33
- Minnesota: 48-34
- New Orleans: 48-34
- San Antonio: 48-34
- Oklahoma City: 47-35
- Utah: 45-37
- Denver: 44-38
- LA Clippers: 44-38
Trending up – Blazers and Pelicans
The Portland Trail Blazers have won eight straight games to climb from sixth to third in the West. The New Orleans Pelicans have won 10 straight games to climb from ninth to fourth.
The Blazers have ranked second defensively over the course of their streak, allowing just 97 points per 100 possessions. The streak includes wins over the No. 1 and No. 3-ranked offenses, though the Timberwolves (the No. 3 offense) were without Jimmy Butler and the streak includes twice as many wins over bottom-10 offenses (four) as top-10 offenses (two). But while the defensive numbers need that context, the streak still includes wins over the Warriors, Jazz (ending their 11-game winning streak), Wolves and Thunder.
The Pelicans have been more balanced, with the eighth-ranked offense and seventh-ranked defense over the course of their streak, which includes seven road wins. But only four of the 10 wins have been over teams with winning records and the best of those opponents was the Spurs, who have not been playing well of late.
So the Pelicans’ streak is longer, but over their streak, the Blazers have beat tougher opponents on average. Both teams are home for most of the next two weeks, but the Blazers host the Warriors again on Friday and Anthony Davis’ ankle injury (suffered in their win in Sacramento on Wednesday) could derail the Pelicans.
Trending down – Nuggets, Wolves and Spurs
While the Blazers and Pelicans are two of the four West teams that haven’t lost since the All-Star break, the Nuggets (3-4), Wolves (2-3) and Spurs (2-3) are three of the seven West teams with losing records since the break.
Minnesota (from fourth to sixth) and San Antonio (from third to fifth) have each slipped two spots in the standings since the break, going from having home-court advantage in the first round to playing Game 1 on the road. The Nuggets, meanwhile, have slipped from sixth to ninth.
There’s plenty of time to recover, but the Wolves could be without Jimmy Butler for the rest of the regular season. They’re 4-6 without him, with the numbers of the league’s worst defense (114 points allowed per 100 possessions) in those 10 games. In this latest absence, they’ve been able to beat the two bad teams they’ve played (Chicago and Sacramento), but they’ve lost important games in Portland and in Utah.
The Nuggets beat the Spurs in their first game out of the break, but have since lost four of their last six, losing at home to the Clippers in a game they led by 19 points in the third quarter, and losing to the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday. Denver ranks last defensively (115 points allowed per 100 possessions) since Feb. 1.
The Spurs still rank second defensively overall, but 17th since Feb. 1. Their offense has been inconsistent all season and it’s still not clear if and when they’ll get Kawhi Leonard back.
The Blazers have a relatively tough schedule in regard to opponent strength, with 13 of their final 17 games against teams with winning records, including three games against Golden State and Houston. They’ll also play five of their seven remaining games within this group on the road. So that 3 seed is far from sewn up.
The Pelicans have the most home-heavy remaining schedule in the league, with 12 of their final 18 games at the Smoothie King Center. That includes four of their six remaining games against the other seven teams in this group. But location hasn’t meant much to the Pels this season. They have both a better record and a better point differential on the road (21-14, plus-1.2 per game) than at home (17-12, plus-0.7).
As noted above, the Spurs have the league’s toughest remaining schedule, with 15 of their 18 games against teams with winning records and another against the improved Lakers. And Thursday’s game at Golden State is just the start of a three-game trip that also includes visits to Oklahoma City (Saturday) and Houston (Monday).
But that’s followed by a six-game homestand, in which they’ll host important games against the Pelicans, Wolves and Jazz, with a *rest advantage against Utah.
* Rest advantage = When your opponent played the day before, but you did not. Over the last two seasons, home teams are 290-159 (.646) with a rest advantage and road teams are 86-82 (.512) with a rest advantage.
The Timberwolves have one of the easier remaining schedules in the West, as well as more games at home than on the road, where they are 2-13 in 2018. But we’re going to know a lot about their ability to hang on without Butler in the next two weeks, because they play their next six games against teams with winning records.
The Thunder have the group’s fifth toughest schedule in regard to opponent strength, but after they play three of their next four games against teams with losing records, they’ll play 11 straight against teams currently over .500, a stretch that includes visits to Toronto, Boston and Houston. They will play four of their six remaining games within this group (including Saturday’s game against the Spurs) at home.
The Clippers have a similarly tough schedule, with 15 of their 19 remaining games against teams with winning records, as well as a game against those Lakers (on the last night of the season). The Clips have just one game remaining against the top two teams in the West (at Houston next Thursday), but also visit the Toronto Raptors, who have the league’s best home record, as they play nine of 11 on the road from March 13-30.
The Nuggets have the most road-heavy remaining schedule of the group, with 10 of their final 17 games on the road and a seven-game, 14-day trip starting March 17. And among these teams, playing a home has been most important to the Nuggets, who have been 8.9 points per 100 possessions better at the Pepsi Center (plus-4.3) than they’ve been on the road (minus-4.6).
But the Nuggets have a relatively easy schedule in regard to opponent strength. And the time to turn things around is right now. Denver will play six of its next seven games against teams that are currently under .500 (though that includes two games against the Lakers), before finishing the season with 10 straight games against teams that currently have winning records.
The Jazz are one of two Western Conference teams (Dallas is the other) with more games remaining against teams that are under .500 (nine) than against teams that are over .500 (eight). They’ve won their last eight games against the bad teams.
The Jazz have nine of their 17 remaining games at home, but four of their five remaining games against the other teams within this group are on the road. Of course, while they still have the league’s sixth biggest home-road NetRtg differential (7.2 points per 100 possessions), the Jazz have won nine straight on the road. Also, their final game against the Clippers (April 5) is in Utah, and a win would clinch the tiebreaker against the Clips.
There are 28 season series between these eight teams. And 11 of the head-to-head tiebreakers have been determined, with each of the eight teams having clinched at least one…
- Denver over New Orleans
- LA Clippers over Denver
- Minnesota over LA Clippers
- Minnesota over New Orleans
- Minnesota over Oklahoma City
- New Orleans over Oklahoma City
- Oklahoma City over LA Clippers
- Oklahoma City over Utah
- Portland over Oklahoma City
- San Antonio over LA Clippers
- Utah over San Antonio
Also, though the Jazz could tie the season series when they play in Minnesota on April 1, the Wolves have clinched that tiebreaker, because Utah (6-8 within the Northwest Division) can’t catch Minnesota (9-4) in division record.
Three more series are done with no head-to-head tiebreaker determined, because the teams split their four games …
- Denver vs. San Antonio
- Denver vs. Utah
- Minnesota vs. Portland
So the tiebreaker is still yet to be determined in 13 of the 28 matchups, and there are still 25 remaining games between the eight teams, starting with Spurs-Thunder on Saturday.
Below are the seven head-to-head games in the next two weeks (through March 22), a critical stretch for both the Spurs and Clippers, who each play in three of the seven games. The Nuggets are the only team that isn’t involved, as they’re about to play five straight games against teams with losing records …
- March 10: San Antonio @ Oklahoma City
- March 11: Utah @ New Orleans
- March 15: New Orleans @ San Antonio
- March 16: LA Clippers @ Oklahoma City (RA)
- March 17: Minnesota @ San Antonio
- March 18: Portland @ LA Clippers (RA)
- March 20: LA Clippers @ Minnesota
(RA) – Rest advantage
After head-to-head, the next tiebreaker is division winner over non-division winner. The Rockets and Warriors are set to win the Southwest and Pacific Divisions, respectively, but the door is open for one of the five Northwest Division teams to grab a tiebreaker over the Clippers, Pelicans or Spurs if that particular series finished with a 2-2 tie.
In a tiebreaker determined by conference record, the Wolves would likely have an edge over every other team, because they have the worst record (10-15) among the group against the Eastern Conference.
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