NBA Playoff Picture: Where Denver is lurking to play knockout in the West

Yahoo Sports

Almost every day there’s movement in the race for the Western Conference’s final six playoff seeds behind runaway favorites in Houston and Golden State. Two teams switched places twice in the last two days alone, and just one loss separates the ninth seed from four teams now in playoff position.

It’s tough to see the the horizon through the window of ever-changing standings, so we’ll do our best here to paint a big picture of the landscape for each team as they look to avoid the lottery.

PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (48-31, currently in third place)
Two games up on fourth place, clinched playoff berth

Projected record: 49-33
Net rating: 2.1
Record against top-10 teams in the West: 16-16
Games left against teams above .500: 3
Home games left: 1
Road games left: 2

The Blazers own a head-to-head tiebreaker against the Thunder. They currently own conference-record tiebreakers against the Spurs and Pelicans. They trail their season series against the Jazz with one game left to even the score. The Wolves, Nuggets and Clippers can’t catch them in the standings.

Good news: The Blazers are the only team in this bunch to have clinched a playoff berth, and they have a two-game lead on third place with three to play. It’d take a disaster to fall in the standings.

Bad news: That disaster is in play. Damian Lillard sprained his ankle at the end of a horrible loss to the Mavericks and missed Thursday’s loss to the Rockets. That Dallas defeat kept the door open for Utah. While Lillard is expected back, Portland plays its next two games on the road against the desperate Spurs and Nuggets, and if the Jazz can make up one game, their meeting with the Blazers in the regular-season finale would decide the third seed. And three losses could send Portland to fifth.

Remaining games: at San Antonio, at Denver, vs. Utah

UTAH JAZZ (46-33, currently in fourth place)
Two games behind third place, two games up on ninth place

Projected record: 48-34
Net rating: 4.2
Record against top-10 teams in the West: 18-14
Games left against teams above .500: 2
Home games left: 1
Road games left: 2

The Jazz own head-to-head tiebreakers against the Spurs, Pelicans and Clippers. They lost their season series to the Thunder and currently trail division-record tiebreakers against the Nuggets and Wolves. They’re 2-1 with one game to play against the Blazers.

Good news: The Jazz remain one of the league’s hottest teams, with Quin Snyder, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert making late-season pushes for Coach, Rookie and Defensive Player of the Year, respectively. Dante Exum (8.7 points and three assists in 15.6 minutes per game off the bench) has provided a boost, and everyone in the rotation is fulfilling his role. This is a frightening team.

Bad news: It’s no cakewalk to close out the season. Even a win over the Lakers on Sunday doesn’t clinch a playoff spot, so long as the Nuggets puts away the Clippers on Saturday, and suddenly those final two games against the Warriors and Blazers are looking awfully daunting. The Nuggets, Wolves and Pelicans all own tiebreakers against Utah, so there’s still the threat the Jazz could end up on the outside. The hope is that the weekend solidifies their spot, and it doesn’t come down to that.

Remaining games: at. L.A. Lakers, vs. Golden State, at Portland

SAN ANTONIO SPURS (45-34, currently in fifth place)
Three games behind third place, one game up on ninth place

Projected record: 47-35
Net rating: 3.3
Record against top-10 teams in the West: 13-18
Games left against teams above .500: 2
Home games left: 2
Road games left: 1

The Spurs own a head-to-head tiebreaker against the Clippers. They currently hold conference-record tiebreakers against the Thunder and Nuggets. They lost their season series against the Jazz. Friday’s game against the Blazers will determine that tiebreaker, and they must win their final game against the Pelicans to forge a tie in that season series.

Good news: They have Gregg Popovich and LaMarcus Aldridge, a bona fide Coach of the Year candidate and an All-NBA lock who belongs on some MVP ballots. There is no other way than playing the right way in San Antonio, even without Kawhi Leonard and a roster full of the undervalued, and somehow that’s been enough to keep them within striking distance of the third seed with three games left.

Bad news: It does not appear Leonard will return at all this season, and opposing GMs are circling like sharks in hopes he never does. And the Spurs were swept in L.A. by the Clippers and Lakers on a back-to-back, so they’re now clinging to a playoff spot by one loss with two tough games remaining.

Remaining games: vs. Portland, vs. Sacramento, at New Orleans

Thunder forward Carmelo Anthony is nearing the end … of a not great season. (AP)
Thunder forward Carmelo Anthony is nearing the end … of a not great season. (AP)

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (45-34, currently in sixth place)
Three games behind third place, one games up on ninth place

Projected record: 47-35
Net rating: 2.6
Record against top-10 teams in the West: 14-18
Games left against teams above .500: 2
Home games left: 1
Road games left: 2

The Thunder own head-to-head tiebreakers against the Jazz and Clippers. They lost season series to the Blazers, Wolves, Pelicans and Nuggets, and they trail a conference-record tiebreaker to the Spurs.

Good news: Russell Westbrook needs 41 rebounds in his final three games to average a triple-double for the second straight season. That’s ridiculous. He had 44 points, 16 rebounds and six assists against the Warriors on Tuesday, albeit in a loss, and he’s playing his best basketball over the last month.

Bad news: The hope that Carmelo Anthony finds himself is gone, and now Paul George “feels funny” shooting the ball, which is not great in the season’s final week. The Thunder have lost four of their last five games, and they’re going on the road against Houston and Miami in the next three days. With no tiebreakers at the tail end of these standings, they need a win in one of those games, if not both.

Remaining games: at Houston, at Miami, vs. Memphis

Pelicans star Anthony Davis has four games to finish off his MVP résumé. (AP)
Pelicans star Anthony Davis has four games to finish off his MVP résumé. (AP)

NEW ORLEANS PELICANS (44-34, currently in seventh place)
2.5 games behind third place, half-game up on ninth place

Projected record: 46-36
Net rating: 1.4
Record against top-10 teams in the West: 11-21
Games left against teams above .500: 3
Home games left: 1
Road games left: 3

The Pelicans own a head-to-head tiebreaker against the Thunder. They’ve lost season series to the Wolves, Nuggets and Jazz. They trail a conference-record tiebreaker with the Blazers. They’re 2-1 with one game to play against the Spurs and Clippers.

Good news: The welcome sight of Memphis and a clean shave for Nikola Mirotic temporarily halted what was a brutal tumble down the standings. The Pelicans had lost four straight entering Wednesday’s win. Anthony Davis has a heavy load to bear, but he can give it right back to anybody.

Bad news: After a must-win road game against the Suns in Phoenix on Friday, New Orleans finishes the season against the Warriors, Clippers and Spurs. Ouch. There’s an outside shot the fate of all three opponents is decided before the Pelicans get to them, which might help in terms of who has more to lose in those showdowns, but there’s also a chance the Pels will need to sweep all three. Ouch again.

Remaining games: at Phoenix, at Golden State, at L.A. Clippers, vs. San Antonio

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (44-35, currently in eighth place)
Two games behind fourth place, tied record-wise with ninth place

Projected record: 46-36
Net rating: 1.8
Record against top-10 teams in the West: 19-14
Games left against teams above .500
: 1
Home games left: 2
Road games left
: 1

The Wolves own head-to-head tiebreakers against the Pelicans, Thunder and Clippers. They lost their season series with the Spurs. They currently hold a division-record tiebreaker against the Jazz and a conference-record tiebreaker against the Nuggets. And they can’t catch the Blazers in the standings.

Good news: Jimmy Butler is scheduled to return against the Lakers on Friday, nearly six weeks after his arthroscopic right knee surgery, and Jeff Teague returned on Thursday from a one-game absence to rest his sore knee. Minnesota was the West’s third-best team when everyone was healthy, and they could prove it again in the playoffs, so long as they take care of business against L.A. and Memphis.

Bad news: The Wolves are 6-9 in their last 15 games, with a loss to Memphis in that mix, so hopefully Butler can quickly knock off the rust. Even with wins over the Lakers and Grizzlies, Minnesota could face a win-or-go-home scenario if Denver enters their regular-season finale with the same record.

Remaining games: at L.A. Lakers, vs. Memphis, vs. Denver

Nuggets guard Will Barton has filled in admirably in Gary Harris’ absence. (AP)
Nuggets guard Will Barton has filled in admirably in Gary Harris’ absence. (AP)

DENVER NUGGETS (44-35, currently in ninth place)
Three games behind fourth place, one game behind eighth place

Projected record: 45-37
Net rating: 0.5
Record against top-10 teams in the West: 14-16
Games left against teams above .500: 3
Home games left: 1
Road games left: 2

The Nuggets own head-to-head tiebreakers against the Pelicans and Thunder. They lost their season series to the Clippers. They cannot catch the Blazers in the standings. They split season series against the Jazz and Spurs, holding a division-record tiebreaker against Utah and trailing a conference-record tiebreaker to San Antonio. They must win their final game against the Wolves to even that series.

Good news: The Nuggets are scrapping. They’ve won four straight games, all against teams vying for playoff position. Nikola Jokic has been ridiculous, and Will Barton has helped steady the ship without Gary Harris, who has now missed 10 straight games with a knee injury. They’re fighting for a chance.

Bad news: Denver has played its last seven games against (likely) playoff-bound teams, and they still have three more to play, with the Clippers, Blazers and Wolves all in their way. A sweep would get them into the playoffs for the first time in six years, but that’s asking a lot with two on the road.

Remaining games: at L.A. Clippers, vs. Portland, at Minnesota

The Clippers need may be bruised and battered, but they’re still alive. (AP)
The Clippers need may be bruised and battered, but they’re still alive. (AP)

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (42-37, currently in 10th place)
Four games behind fourth place, two games behind eighth place

Projected record: 44-38
Net rating: 1.0
Record against top-10 teams in the West: 9-22
Games left against teams above .500: 2
Home games left: 3
Road games left: 0

The Clippers own a head-to-head tiebreaker against the Nuggets. They lost season series to the Wolves, Spurs and Thunder and a conference-record tiebreaker to the Jazz. They must win their final game against the Pelicans to forge a season series tie. They can’t catch the Blazers in the standings.

Good news: It’s hard to believe the Clippers still have a chance to make the playoffs, but there is a road map, as bumpy as it may be. Wins over the Nuggets and Pelicans in the next three days would leave them lurking as a tiebreak threat to unseat both, but they still need some outside help.

Bad news: Minnesota’s magic number to keep the Clips off their tails is one. The more likely scenario is that the Clippers will need to make up two games against the Nuggets and three against the Pelicans with three two play, which doesn’t seem all that likely, even if it is in the realm of possibility.

Remaining games: vs. Denver, vs. New Orleans, vs. L.A. Lakers

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Ben Rohrbach is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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