Playoff Race Update: Neck-And-Neck With Four Games To Go

The Portland Trail Blazers looked as though they might pull away in the race for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference after defeating the Denver Nuggets, their closest rival for the eighth-seed, 122-113 on March 28 at the Moda Center. When they bested the Houston Rockets two nights later, and then the Phoenix Suns two nights after that to extend their win streak to six games, that assumption that the Trail Blazers would qualify for the postseason for the fourth straight season seemed to be a rather safe one.

But that is no longer the case. Though they were able to beat the Suns without Jusuf Nurkić, who is sidelined for the rest of the regular season with a non-displaced fracture in his right fibula, Portland dropped their final two road games, a back-to-back series versus the Timberwolves and Jazz, without their starting center and now find themselves just a half game up on the Nuggets with four games to play. However, in the event that both teams end with the same record, the Trail Blazers get finish in eighth due to owning the season series tiebreaker.

So here’s a look at what remains for the Trail Blazers and Nuggets, the final two teams fighting for the eighth-seed (the Pelicans were eliminated from playoff contention Tuesday night after losing to… the Denver Nuggets). And since the race is down to two teams, let’s take a more detailed look at the remaining slate of games for both teams.

Portland Trail Blazers, 8th-place in the Western Conference

Overall record: 38-40 | Conference record: 25-23 | Division record: 9-5
Home record: 22-15 | Away record: 16-25 | Games back: 26

Remaining home games: 4
Remaining road games: 0

Remaining games versus teams under .500: 2 (2 home, 0 away)
Remaining games versus teams over .500: 2 (2 home, 0 away)

April 6 vs. Timberwolves: Though the they were eliminated from postseason contention after the Trail Blazers defeated the Suns on April 1, the Timberwolves are still playing their entire roster, not a surprise under coach Tom Thibodeau. The Timberwolves won the most recent matchup, a 110-109 victory in which second-year power forward/center Karl-Anthony Towns took full advantage of Portland’s lack of size to the tune of 34 points and 12 rebounds. 

The game in Portland will the be the first night of a back-to-back and the second of a four-game road trip for the Timberwolves after falling 121-107 to the Warriors in Oakland on April 4.

April 8 vs. Jazz: The Utah Jazz are currently just a game up on the LA Clippers for the fourth-seed, and thus, home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, so one assumes they’ll have plenty to play for Sunday night at the Moda Center. The Jazz easily beat the Trail Blazers, a team playing on the second night of a back-to-back, 106-87 on April 4 despite Derrick Favors, George Hill and Rodney Hood all sitting out with various injuries.

Saturday’s game will be the second of a back-to-back from the Jazz, as they play the Timberwolves in Utah on April 7. If you’re pulling for the Trail Blazers to make the postseason, you’d like to see Utah win that game and the Clippers lose their upcoming games versus the Mavericks and Spurs. Such a scenario would increase the chances of the Jazz having their seed locked up, and thus, making a result against the Trail Blazers inconsequential.

April 10 vs. Spurs: Currently 3.5 games behind the Golden State Warriors for the top spot in the West and with an 8.0 game cushion over the Rockets for third with five games to play, it seems more likely than not that the Spurs won’t have anything to play for when they face the Trail Blazers in the penultimate game of the regular season for both teams. San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich is more than willing to rest his players even in games they do need to win, so it stands to reason the Spurs might be more concerned with rest than a win in this one. But it’s also the Spurs, a team that can beat any team on any given night seemingly regardless of what players are available, so it’s no gimme by any stretch.

April 12 vs. Pelicans: As previously noted, the Pelicans were eliminated from playoff contention Tuesday night, so they too will be playing for nothing more than pride when they take the court in the final game of the regular season for both teams. The Pelicans destroyed the Trail Blazers 100-77 in the most recent meeting in New Orleans on March 17, and that was with Jusuf Nurkić in the lineup, so there’s no telling what Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins might do to Portland’s undersized front line if they suit up in this one. However, this game is the second night of a back-to-back for the Pelicans, as they play the Lakers in Los Angeles the night before.

Denver Nuggets, 9th-place in the Western Conference

Overall record: 37-40 | Conference record: 21-26 | Division record: 5-9
Home record: 21-18 | Away record: 16-22 | Games back: 26.5

Remaining home games: 2
Remaining road games: 3

Remaining games versus teams under .500: 3 (1 home, 2 away)
Remaining games versus teams over .500: 2 (1 home, 1 away)

April 5 @ Rockets: The Rockets enter this game with nothing to play for, as they are locked into third-place in the Western Conference. However, this is the second game of a back-to-back for the Nuggets, and James Harden said he plans on playing Wednesday night after sitting out Houston’s last game with flu-like symptoms. With Harden in the thick of what seems more and more like a two-man MVP race, one assumes he’ll give this one his best effort. If you’re a Trail Blazers fan, you’re hoping his teammates do the same.

April 7 vs. Pelicans: This is the third and final meeting for between the two teams over a span of 13 days, with each team winning one game on their opponent’s home court. If you’re a Trail Blazer fan, you hope that trend continues. And since the Nuggets were the team that eliminated the Pelicans, hopefully they use this game as a chance to get even. What’s more, the Pelicans have two days off prior to this rubber match. Do it for your friends back in Portland Tim Frazier.

April 9 vs. Thunder: While it’s still mathematically possible for the Thunder to finish as high as fifth and as low as seventh, it’s far more likely that they’ll be all but locked into the fifth-seed by time this game rolls around. So in that regard, the Thunder probably won’t have much to play for from a standings perspective. But as is the case with Harden, Russell Westbrook will certainly look to finish the season out strong prior to the vote for Most Valuable Player, so one would expect this game to be competitive. And the Thunder will have a day off prior to this contest.

April 11 @ Mavericks: Eliminated from playoff contention, the Mavericks have started to rest their older and injured players, including Dirk Nowitzki and Wesley Matthews, so this one might not be all that competitive. Dallas has an incentive to lose, Denver an incentive to win, so despite being on the road, this looks like an easy “W” for the Nuggets.

April 12 @ Thunder: The final game of the season for both team, but on the second night of a back-to-back for the Nuggets. One assumes Westbrook is going to try to end his season of triple-doubles with an exclamation point, so perhaps that will be all the motivation the Thunder need to try their hardest in this one. It’s possible the Trail Blazers could have eighth locked up by this point, though the way things are going, that seems unlikely.

Tiebreaker: The Trail Blazers own the tiebreaker by virtue of taking the season series 3-1.

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