Call for urgency among middle seeds in Western Conference

Call for urgency among middle seeds in Western Conference

April 03, 2018 3:04 AM
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The top two seeds in the Western Conference were decided when Houston and Golden State became locked into their spots, but figuring out the remaining six positions requires a wild ride that continues tonight with two head-to-head duels between four of the eight teams battling for the vacancies.

Denver, currently ninth, and the Clippers, who have bounced down to 10th after following up a crucial three-game winning streak with consecutive losses, are on the outside looking in.

The sense of urgency should be high for everyone in the Western Conference, especially the teams now situated in slots 4 through 8. San Antonio has 32 losses entering the week, Oklahoma City and Utah file in with 33 and New Orleans joins Utah with 34.

The Trail Blazers look like they’ll finish third since they have now secured the tie-breaker if the teams end up even atop the Northwest Division thanks to a 108-105 road win at OKC.

What this week becomes for the Western Conference’s biggest surprise is a test of just how much they have left in the tank. The Blazers played five games in eight days and fell on the second night of a back-to-back without Damian Lillard in Memphis on Wednesday. They lost despite C.J. McCollum scoring 42 points after missing only nine of 25 shots.

Portland got its All-Star guard back from a very quick paternity leave, but there’s always a mental grind given how hectic a birth can be. Lillard also had his half-brother shot in a parking lot to deal with in a very stressful 24 hours but returned with fresh legs. We’ll see whether the same can be said for his teammates going forward since Jusuf Nurkic’s back has been an issue and Mo Harkless’ Wednesday knee surgery has significantly trimmed depth on the wing.

The Blazers responded from coming off their longest road trip since the All-Star break with a pair of wins and now hit the road to square off with all three Texas-based teams before finishing up in Denver on April 9. Portland would love for its season finale on the 11th against Utah to mean absolutely nothing, but it can only gain such security by holding up over a taxing final stretch.

The Spurs picked up an immense upset win over Houston on Sunday afternoon to keep its chances of posting another 50-win season alive, although they’ll have to win out to do so. They’ll play a back-to-back against the Clippers and Lakers at Staples Center before returning home to play the Blazers and Kings, so expect them to take care of business enough not to miss the playoffs, which was a major concern as recently as last week.

There’s still no clarity over whether they’ll be able to get star forward Kawhi Leonard back since his group of doctors and consultants still haven’t cleared him to return. He’s a major x-factor in the West playoff picture considering his return would make his team a championship contender, but it now appears if he does return, he’ll have little grace period to get back in the swing of things.

The Clippers are playing for the 10th time in 16 days, eight of which will have been on the road by the time they finally head back to L.A. to finish with five of six at home. They’ve played in Houston, Oklahoma City, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Indianapolis and Toronto. All of the teams that play in those cities are likely to be playoff bound. Portland, too.

Utah dominated Minnesota on April 1 to pass them in the standings, and play the Lakers, Clippers and Lakers again this week, giving them an opportunity to go on a run. Donovan Mitchell will look to cement his case for Rookie of the Year and Rudy Gobert is emerging as the clear choice as top defender, but one last surge should push them over the top.

The Thunder and Timberwolves are also looking to cement bids. Oklahoma City will be a dangerous first opponent for anyone in the West given how difficult it will be to drop Russell Westbrook and Paul George four times in a series, but the fact the pieces still haven’t fit all that well is a major source of concern.

Minnesota is hoping to get Jimmy Butler back for its final push, since its realistic chances of making a run hinge on his ability to improve their defense and make the game easier for young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.

New Orleans enters the week on a four-game losing streak, missing Rajon Rondo’s leadership since all their setbacks have been tight ones. He should be in the fold for the closing stretch, which the Pelicans will open as a heavy favorite against the Grizzlies on Wednesday before they hit the road for games at Phoenix, Golden State and the Clippers.

Denver looks like a longshot to pass anyone, but does see Minnesota twice and the Clippers once, allowing it to control its own destiny to a point.

Of the Clippers’ remaining opponents, only the Lakers, who they finish up with April 11, are currently under .500. Head coach Doc Rivers is pulling out all the stops, which includes the return of wing Danilo Gallinari, who last played in the first game after the All-Star break. He fractured his hand on Feb. 22 but returned last week. L.A. has to win out to have a shot at cracking the top eight.