Pelicans in middle of what's shaping up to be riveting West playoff race

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

If a 24-hour period prior to the NBA All-Star break was any indication, fans of a handful of Western Conference playoff hopefuls are in for a fascinating final two months of the 2017-18 regular season. When New Orleans rolled to a Feb. 14 home victory over the Lakers – its third straight win – it seemed reasonable to expect that the Pelicans would gain ground on at least one of the teams currently in slots 5 through 10 in the West standings. Instead, Valentine’s Day also featured a ‘W’ for Oklahoma City, Portland, the Clippers and Utah. The next night, Denver prevailed, meaning all six clubs in that portion of the West entered the midseason break on a winning note. The Pelicans and Nuggets are riding three-game win streaks, while the Jazz have registered 11 consecutive triumphs. Partly as a result of Utah’s red-hot stretch, there are only 2.5 games separating fifth-place OKC from 10th place.

Here's a closer look at what’s ahead for the group of teams in a jam-packed West race (keep in mind, third-place San Antonio and fourth-place Minnesota are also not far ahead of OKC, with just a two-game lead on the Thunder):

5, OKLAHOMA CITY 33-26 (1 game ahead of New Orleans)

The Thunder have experienced a roller-coaster regular season, bottoming out at 8-12 overall in November, then going 22-8 over the next 30 games, but limping to a 3-6 mark in their final nine contests prior to the NBA All-Star break (two of those OKC wins were over struggling Memphis, on Feb. 11 and Feb. 14).

Upcoming schedule: Five of the first six games coming out of the All-Star break are on the road, but three of those away games are against non-contending West teams Sacramento, Dallas and Phoenix.

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.

Key second-half dates: The Thunder likely have their sights set on moving up in the West, and have March 10 and March 29 games vs. San Antonio, which may be without Kawhi Leonard the rest of the way. In terms of teams behind OKC in the standings, the Thunder faces Portland twice next month.

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6, DENVER 32-26 (0.5 game ahead of New Orleans)

The Nuggets had difficulty getting separation from .500 until a recent hot stretch that represents the best basketball they’ve played in ’17-18. Denver is 9-3 since a surprising Jan. 19 home loss to Phoenix dropped it to 23-23 overall. The Nuggets have recently beaten several quality teams, highlighted by victories in Pepsi Center over Golden State, San Antonio and Oklahoma City.

Upcoming schedule: Opponent-wise, Denver has a fairly brutal docket, featuring five teams with winning records out of its next seven games. San Antonio, Houston and Cleveland (twice) are all on the schedule in the next 10 days.

Tiebreaker status vs. Pelicans: Denver has clinched the tiebreaking edge, winning the season series 2-1 over New Orleans. The home team prevailed in all three games.

Key second-half dates: The Nuggets have fewer games left vs. the West than any contender, but visit Oklahoma City on March 30 and host Portland on April 9 in the penultimate game for both teams.

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7, PORTLAND (32-26, 0.5 game ahead of New Orleans)

The Trail Blazers have a recent history of getting hot after the All-Star break, but this time Portland didn’t wait to get on a roll. The Blazers are 11-5 since mid-January, a stretch capped by a Feb. 14 win over Golden State. Portland has been exceptional in Moda Center lately after a poor start, going 10-1 there since Christmas (the only defeat was vs. streaking Utah).

Upcoming schedule: Eight of the next 11 games are at Moda Center, though several of the guests are formidable, including Golden State, Cleveland, Minnesota and Oklahoma City.

Tiebreaker status vs. Pelicans: New Orleans leads the head-to-head series 2-1, with one matchup remaining March 27 in 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.

Key second-half dates: The first game after the All-Star break for Portland is Friday at Utah; Game 82 for the Trail Blazers is also against the Jazz, but in Oregon.

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8, NEW ORLEANS 31-26

The Pelicans had won seven of eight games at the time DeMarcus Cousins was sidelined by a season-ending injury Jan. 26, in the final seconds of a win over Houston. Since then, New Orleans initially went 1-5 without Cousins, but was 3-0 in the days prior to the All-Star break. Anthony Davis averaged 41.3 points during the three-game winning streak.

Upcoming schedule: Five of the next seven games are on the road, but there is a stretch next month of a whopping eight home games between March 9-22, with only a March 15 trip to San Antonio taking New Orleans away from Louisiana during that span.

Tiebreaker status overview: The Pelicans have clinched it vs. OKC and have the inside track vs. Portland. Otherwise, there’s not a lot of good news on this front. NOLA lost its head-to-head series against Denver, trails 2-1 to Utah and is 1-1 vs. the Clippers. Conference record could work against the Pelicans if there is a season-series deadlock with the Blazers, Jazz or Clips.

Key second-half dates: New Orleans has two games remaining in Staples Center against the Clippers, both slated for national TV (March 6 on TNT, April 9 on ESPN). There are also home matchups vs. Utah and Portland in March, as well as OKC on April Fool’s Day.

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9, LA CLIPPERS 30-26 (0.5 game behind New Orleans)

At various stages of this season, there was rampant speculation that the Clippers might head into rebuilding mode, particularly after they traded longtime star forward Blake Griffin. Those predictions have proven to be incorrect, with Los Angeles digging out of an 11-18 start, going 19-8 since mid-December.

Upcoming schedule: A three-game road trip to Golden State, Phoenix and Denver is followed immediately by a six-game homestand.

Tiebreaker status vs. Pelicans: The season series is tied 1-1, with two games remaining in Los Angeles. The Clippers have a fairly significant advantage over the Pelicans in conference record, so New Orleans may need to sweep that pair on the Clips’ home floor to claim the tiebreaker.

Key second-half dates: There is no shortage of dates to circle on the docket – eight of the final 26 games are against West teams in current slots 5 through 10. Two games apiece remain vs. Denver, New Orleans and Portland. Three of LAC’s final four games are against Utah, Denver and New Orleans.

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10, UTAH 30-28 (1.5 games behind New Orleans)

You couldn’t blame anyone for giving up on the Jazz’s postseason chances when they lost in Atlanta on Jan. 22, dropping them to an overall record of 19-28. They haven’t lost since then, however, racking up 11 consecutive victories and surging back into contention. Impressively, the 11-game stretch has featured wins over Golden State, Toronto and San Antonio (twice).

Upcoming schedule: Utah has a prime opportunity to continue building on its eye-opening streak, playing four straight home games coming out of the All-Star break. However, Portland, Houston and Minnesota are among the guests.

Tiebreaker status vs. Pelicans: Utah holds a 2-1 season-series edge, with one game remaining March 11 in New Orleans. This involves some semi-complicated math, but if the Jazz and Pelicans finish with the same overall record after 82 games, conference record is already almost guaranteed to favor Utah.

Key second-half dates: The Jazz won’t get many head-to-head chances to make a dent in their current deficit, with a total of only four games remaining against teams in slots 5 through 9. Portland is the only foe from that group that Utah faces twice (Feb. 23, April 11).