The Stretch Run

The Playoffs are just around the corner, but Portland still has some tough games before we get there. Photo courtesy of Oregonlive.

This is what we’ve all been waiting for. Contending for a Playoff spot in March. As of this writing, the Blazers sit in the seven spot in the Western Conference with 16 games left to play. Sure we were all thinking Conference Finals this season; using March to lock up home court and April to rest the starters. Though the Conference Finals are now the wistful dreams of only the most deluded homers, this author unabashedly among them, Portland most certainly has both feet in the Playoffs. Count that as a positive

In some ways, holding on to the seven spot by a game and a half, and three games from out of the Playoffs altogether, is almost better than being in the top four in the conference. We get Playoff basketball a full month before anybody else. From now until April 13th, every game is important. If you haven’t been already checking the standings every day, let me suggest that you start now. Playoff seeding can, and does, change by the day.

Along with entering maybe the most important time of the season, we are also entering an interesting time for all Blazer fans. This is the time when maybe once or twice a week the Blazer faithful become Spurs fans or Lakers fans, depending on which teams are matched up with Portland’s competition for the final Playoff spots. Sean put together a nice breakdown of the Blazer’s remaining games, but given that we’re now watching more than just Portland’s results, I’d like to take this time to talk about what’s left for the teams fighting for the final four spots in the West.

For arguments sake, let’s assume that Portland will not be able to make up the five and half games between themselves and the Oklahoma City Thunder, and that the best the Blazers can finish is fifth place in the West. With that in mind, Portland is fighting with four teams for the final spots.

Those four teams: the Denver Nuggets, the New Orleans Hornets, the Memphis Grizzlies, and the Phoenix Suns. Of those four teams, two are ahead of the Blazers, the Nuggets and the Hornets, and two are behind, the Grizzlies and the Suns. Portland has games left with only New Orleans and Memphis, which is good. That means that only two times for the rest of the season could Portland lose a game that counts as one in the loss column for the Blazers and one in win column for one of their nearest competitors.

Check out Sean’s rundown to see how Portland did against each of these teams. This is what each team has left, starting with the team closest to the top four.

The Denver Nuggets

Record: 39-27 2nd place in the Northwest Division 5th place in the Western Conference

Distance from Portland: +2 games

Remaining Games: 16

Games to Watch: Mon. March 14th @ New Orleans, Fri. March 18th @ Orlando, Sat. March 19th @ Miami, Wed. March 23rd vs. San Antonio, Sun. April 3rd @ Los Angeles Lakers, Tue. April 5th vs. Oklahoma City, Wed. April 6th @ Dallas, Fri. April 8th @Oklahoma City

Denver is really the surprise right now of the Western Conference’s bottom four. Since giving up most of their team in the blockbuster Carmelo Anthony deal, the Nuggets haven’t fallen off hardly at all. Melo was traded on the 22nd of February, and since that time Denver has lost only twice, once in overtime to the Blazers, and once to the Los Angeles Clippers. Like Portland, Denver doesn’t have an easy stretch run. They do the Florida back-to-back, and still have two games left against the Thunder. The Nuggets have some bunnies though, including two against the Sacramento Kings, and it’s possible that any damage done by the topflight teams they have left to play can be undone by beating up on their sub .500 opponents. New acquisition Danilo Gallinari is slated to miss some time with a broken toe. How much that affects Denver remains to be seen.

The New Orleans Hornets

Record: 39-29 3rd place in the Northwest Division 6th place in the Western Conference

Distance from Portland: +1 game

Remaining Games: 13

Games to Watch: Mon. March 14th vs. Denver, Wed. March 16th vs. Phoenix, Sat. Mar.19th vs. Boston, Fri. March 25th @ Phoenix, Sun March 27th @ Los Angeles Lakers, Wed. March 30th vs. Portland, Fri. April 1st vs. Memphis, Fri. April 8th vs. Phoenix, Sun. April 10th @ Memphis, Wed. April 13th @ Dallas.

New Orleans has been hot and cold all season, much like Portland. Just when the Hornets are playing like a top-level team, they turn around and drop three or four straight. As far as what they have left, New Orleans has a relatively light schedule. Only one three game-road trip, and only five road-games left total. The Hornets’ tough games, for the most part, are at home. The match-up with Portland will be big, so will the home and home twofers with Phoenix and Memphis. These four games will be the most interesting for Portland fans. If by the first week in April, the Blazers are still ahead of Memphis and Phoenix but trailing New Orleans, we could all become Hornets fans. Break out those Jarrett Jack jerseys. A couple interesting games for New Orleans will be against Utah and Houston, although they aren’t key games, both the Jazz and Rockets could salvage some of their seasons by playing spoiler.

Those are the teams Portland trails, on to the teams behind the Blazers.

The Memphis Grizzlies

Record: 36-31 4th place in the Southwest Division 8th place in the Western Conference

Distance from Portland: -1.5 games

Remaining Games: 15

Games to Watch: Thur. March 17 @ New York, Wed. March 23rd @ Boston, Fri. March 25th @ Chicago, Sun. March 27th vs. San Antonio, Fri. April 1st @ New Orleans, Sun. April 10th vs. New Orleans, Tue. April 12th @ Portland.

Memphis is somewhat of a wildcard. This is a team that has been on the brink for quite a few seasons, and has never been able to make that final step up into the Playoffs. Memphis has the table set relatively nicely to hold on to the final spot in the Western Conference. With three games left against the Clippers, including one on the day of this writing, and a meeting each with the Warriors, Jazz, Pacers, and Kings, the Grizz should be able to make up for a tough Wednesday, Friday, Sunday swing that includes games in Boston and Chicago, and a home game against the San Antonio Spurs. This team seems the most likely candidate for self sabotage, or if not sabotage then simply an extended choke. If they’re cruising though, and steal one in Chi, Boston, or at Madison Square Garden, that could be just what they need to catch fire and start to roll. Big games for Memphis are going to be against the teams that they should beat. This team, as it is, has never gotten to this point in the season and still been a legit Playoff participant. Teams like the Clippers, Timberwolves, and Warriors could really help out the Blazers by coming to play at the end of March and the beginning of April.

The Phoenix Suns

Record: 33-31 2nd place in the Pacific Division 9th place in the Western Conference

Distance from Portland: -3 games

Remaining Games: 18

Games to Watch: Wed. March 16th @ New Orleans, Tue. March 22nd @ Los Angeles Lakers, Fri. March 25th vs. New Orleans, Sun. March 27th vs. Dallas, Wed. March 30th vs. Oklahoma City, Sun. April 3rd @ San Antonio, Fri. April 8th @ New Orleans, Sun. April 10th @ Dallas, Wed. April 13 vs. San Antonio.

In the NBA, ninth place is the first loser. With 18 games remaining, the most out of any of the teams in the hunt for the final Playoff spots, the Suns will have plenty of time to make up the game and a half that sits between them and an early summer. Phoenix hasn’t done great with their new pieces. Vince Carter didn’t get any younger, and Marcin Gortat is no Amar’e Stoudemire. Aaron Brooks is an upgrade from Goran Dragic but not by too much. The question with this team is whether or not they have the fight to make a playoff push. One season removed from a Conference Finals run, it remains to be seen if this group can catch their second wind. Steve Nash sat out a beat down at the hands of the Orlando Magic on Sunday with abdominal pain, and Channing Frye is benched at the moment with a dislocated right shoulder. It might be too late for Phoenix by the time those guys come back. Like Memphis a good gauge of what this team has left will be games against sub .500 teams. The Warriors, Clippers, Raptors, and Timberwolves all still have at least one game with Phoenix left on their schedules. Phoenix also has some tough road games left, a Sunday/Tuesday double date with the Lakers and the Clippers at the Staples Center, and then a five-gamer that includes a match-up with Minnesota, bookended by games in San Antonio and Chicago, and in New Orleans and Dallas. Portland better hope their lead on the Suns is more than a half a game coming into April 13th. The Suns play their final home game against the Spurs. We all know that Pop will have his starters fully rooted to the bench for that one, and it’s likely to be a blowout for the home team.

There you have it. Portland has some tough games left, as do all of the teams fighting for those final Playoff positions. Conventional wisdom would say that the Blazers are very nearly in the clear, but a week of bad shooting, and Portland could need to make up three games in a five game stretch. That’s almost impossible. The Blazers will have their first shot at Playoff basketball Tuesday against the Dallas Mavericks at the Rose Garden.

Twitter: @mikeacker | @ripcityproject

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