There are two ways to slice the Western Conference playoff race. Either you look at the Warriors’ and Rockets’ separation from the rest of the conference and wonder how anyone will beat them in the postseason. Or you marvel at the parity from teams two through 10, as eight teams will battle for six playoff spots over the final four weeks of the season. Consider me in the latter group.
Our winter intern Andrew Sharp already outlined how hard team building is in the West, but last summer’s arms race has certainly made for a tightly packed conference. Only four games separate the third-place Blazers(!!) and the 10th-place Spurs(?!?!?!), and teams are jockeying for position every night. How confident should you be that your favorite team will ultimately find a way to play past April 11? Here’s how the situation looks for each playoff hopeful down the stretch.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers are the hottest team west of the Mississippi, south of the border or any other geographical landmark that suits your fancy. Portland is on a league-leading 10-game winning streak, which includes two victories over the Warriors. PDX has found most of its success on the defensive end so far this season, and its Dame-C.J.-Aminu-Evan Turner-Nurkic lineup is suffocating opponents.
The Blazers are in a very comfortable spot, but holding on to the three seed won’t be easy. Portland will play 11 playoff teams in its final 15 games of the season. The Blazers have to play Rockets and Clippers twice, as well as the Spurs, Celtics, Cavs, Thunder, Jazz, Pelicans and Nuggets, all of whom will bring a solid level of motivation. Fortunately, matchups with the Pistons, Grizzlies (2x), and Mavericks should be gimmes.
Confidence level: Don’t agree to any plans your friends try to make after April 11—Portland’s going to be in the playoffs.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Since Andre Roberson’s knee injury on Jan. 27, the Thunder have a 106.7 defensive rating, which would put them in the bottom half of the league defensively over this whole season. OKC may have found something with the addition of Corey Brewer, however. In 61 minutes over four games, the Russ-PG-Melo-Brewer-Adams lineup has a net rating of 18.0, with both an elite offense and stingy defense.
What worries me about OKC is the team has only two wins over an above-.500 team since the start of February, and one of those came against the wounded Spurs. Of the Thunder’s 13 remaining games, 11 are against winning teams. OKC will have to play the Raptors and Celtics on the road, as well as the Blazers, Warriors and Rockets. Those are the five best teams in the league. How the Thunder fare could ultimately depend on if the Corey Brewer-magic can last.
Confidence level: Don’t let Paul George look up any L.A. condos on StreetEasy. This team isn’t out of the woods.
New Orleans Pelicans
It was all good just a week ago, when New Orleans was riding a 10-game win streak and Anthony Davis became a boutique MVP candidate. The Pelicans have since lost two in a row entering Tuesday, with Davis missing the first of those games with an injury. New Orleans’s magical run was fueled largely by Davis, but also the solid play of Jrue Holiday and the smart pickup of Nikola Mirotic. But will it be enough? The Pelicans are only 1 1/2 games ahead of 10th place and their schedule is brutal.
Because of a game that was postponed, New Orleans has to play a back-to-back-to-back at the end of March, a stretch that will include five games in seven nights. The Pelicans will play three of the league’s tankers, but also have to face the Rockets and Spurs twice, with the Celtics and Warriors also making appearances on the schedule.
Confidence level: Losing Boogie Cousins may finally start to catch up with this team over the last few weeks.
The Wolves caught a break when they saw the Stephen Curry-less Warriors over the weekend. The next 11 days could very well decide Minnesota’s fate however, as they play four playoff teams in five games starting Tuesday. The Wolves’ schedule really is boom or bust to close, though. They play five of the league’s worst, as well as the under-.500 Lakers. If Jimmy Butler can return at any point, Minny’s chances obviously improve significantly.
Confidence level: Better than expected considering the Butler injury. And don’t discount the Wolves’ 29–13 conference record—that could come in handy in the case of tiebreakers.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers just won’t die. Every time Doc Rivers loses a player it seems as if his team somehow gets stronger. I’m not sure anyone expected L.A. to be here without Chris Paul AND Blake Griffin, but the Clips keep trudging along, The schedule, however, is brutal. L.A. has to play Houston, OKC, Milwaukee, Indiana, and Portland on the road. The Clips will have home matchups with the Pacers and Blazers, and will also see the Spurs, Pelicans, Jazz and Nuggets. Almost every night will be a dogfight for this team as they finish the season, and there still may be some allure to finishing in the lottery.
Confidence level: I hesitate to pick against zombies, but the road-heavy schedule has me wary.
The Jazz quietly have the second-best defense in the NBA, thanks in large part to Rudy Gobert’s continued dominance on that end. I really wish this team played in the East or the NBA would move to conference-independent seeding. Did you know Utah has the eighth-best net rating in the league? This team grinds out wins, and since the trade deadline, the Donovan Mitchell-Ricky Rubio-Joe Ingles-Jae Crowder-Gobert group has been smoking opponents.
Utah’s remaining schedule is all over the place. Its next five games are against teams under-.500, including four shameless tankers. The Jazz still have to play the Warriors twice, as well as the Spurs, Celtics, Clippers, Wolves and Blazers. But Utah, though not truly elite as the last two months would suggest, is legitimately good. Most of their upcoming games are winnable at the very least.
Confidence level: The Jazz may be the best I feel about any team in this group.
The internet’s once-favorite team. If you subscribe to SI TV, you know why the Nuggets are a lovable bunch. Jamal Murray is First-Team All-NBA Untucked Jersey. Nikola Jokic is the big man version of last year’s Isaiah Thomas. And Mike Malone is always coaching with desperation.
The return of Paul Millsap is important here. He provides some kind of defensive stability, and starting and closing lineups with Millsap have been really good for this team. The issue is Denver can’t play defense. The Nuggets have the second-worst defensive efficiency in the league since the All-Star break...but somehow the best offense!
The schedule is manageable but not great. Denver will see four tankers over the next month, but also get the Raptors, Thunder, Blazers and Wolves twice. Working in Denver’s favor? Eight of their upcoming games are against Eastern Conference opponents.
Confidence level: Things always get dramatic here and this team is very unpredictable. I’m neither confident nor worried. I’m just accepting whatever happens.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs have looked cooked for a few weeks. LaMarcus Aldridge can only do so much, and the rest of the team is either too old, too young, or simply uninspiring. Despite all of that, San Antonio is only two games back of fourth place with a month to play and Kawhi Leonard reportedly set to return this week.
The schedule won’t make climbing back into the playoffs easy. Twelve of the Spurs’ final 15 games are against playoff teams, and they have to face the Warriors, Blazers and Rockets. If Kawhi comes back and even approaches last year’s form, San Antonio suddenly becomes very dangerous. If it takes Leonard time to acclimate to the speed of the game, it’s going to be an uphill battle.
Confidence level: Nothing is guaranteed, not even for the NBA’s model of consistency. All streaks come to an end eventually; San Antonio’s playoff one is firmly in trouble.