Heading into the NBA’s March 1 slate of games, the bottom half of the Western Conference standings is bunched up. Squeezed together. Squashed. Concentrated. Clustered.
Whatever word you prefer, only 3.5 games separate earning home court advantage in round one of the playoffs and missing the postseason entirely.
As it stands, the Phoenix Suns would be that No. 4 seed. And that team 3.5 games behind Phoenix and set to miss the postseason?
That would be the Portland Trail Blazers, who are currently 11th in the West.
But that can change in just 48 minutes when the Blazers host the New Orleans Pelicans (10th in the conference standings) at Moda Center. With a win, Portland and NOLA would flip spots.
If that were to happen, the Blazers would own a spot in the play-in tournament and a real shot at what Damian Lillard has been dragging this team toward – just a chance at a postseason run.
A win over the Pelicans would put the Trail Blazers in the driver’s seat
Portland had a huge opportunity to pick up a game in the standings when the team held a 23-point lead over the Golden State Warriors, who were playing without Stephen Curry. The Blazers proceeded to blow that lead in emphatic fashion, getting outscored by 35 points in the second half.
Flip the script to the following night, though, and Portland has a chance at some semblance of redemption.
The Pelicans have lost four consecutive games and are still playing without Zion Williamson. Jose Alvarado won’t be available to bother Lillard, and New Orleans is also missing Larry Nance Jr. Josh Richardson and Jonas Valanciunas are questionable (avoiding Valanciunas would give the Trail Blazers an extra boost given their serious lack of size).
Considering the Pelicans current form, the heater Dame is on, and the fact that the game is in Portland, the Trail Blazers have to be favored. If they can pull out a win, they’ll move to 30-32, while New Orleans drops to 30-33, giving Portland the 10 spot in the standings by percentage points.
The Blazers then embark on a six-game road trip beginning Friday, March 3. While that doesn’t sound promising given Portland’s 12-18 away record this season, the competition on said road trip is certainly navigable.
After (hopefully) a win over New Orleans, the Blazers play Atlanta (31-31), Orlando (26-36), and Detroit (15-47) consecutively. Then come two tests against Boston and Philadelphia, who are second and third in the East, respectively.
And then guess who – the Pelicans in New Orleans on March 12.
The first three games of the trip are winnable for Portland. The Celtics and Sixers present tough tests, but another opportunity to face NOLA, especially if the Blazers’ time away from home has gone reasonably well to that point, will give them a shot at making up legitimate ground in the postseason race.
It begins with a critical game against the Pelicans at Moda Center, though. It’s not a win-and-your-in scenario, but jumping into a play-in spot would give the Blazers an edge and a good start to one last push heading toward the conclusion of the regular season.