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Playoff race heats up!

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Western Conference Playoff Pack

As we approach the midpoint of the condensed NBA regular season, some separation is emerging in the standings in both conferences. In the Western Conference the top four teams appear poised to put some distance on the rest of the field likely leaving seven teams fighting for the final four spots. Here is a look at those seven teams and the playoff chances for each squad.

Los Angeles Lakers: Given the playoff track record of this team in the last decade it seems silly to include the Lakers on this list but this is a different team. Phil Jackson is no longer on the sidelines and the transition to Mike Brown has not gone overly smooth. Scoring is down throughout the league but the Lakers are scoring nine fewer points per game on average and the shooting numbers are also down, especially from 3-point range. The Lakers currently rank 29th in the league in 3-point shooting percentage but this is the top rebounding team in the NBA, averaging over 45 boards per game and this remains an elite defensive team.

The Lakers have had to play one of the toughest schedules in the league at this point, and while the rest of February will feature several challenging games, March looks like a month where the Lakers should solidify its playoff position with eight games against losing teams and most of the biggest games coming at home. The final two weeks of the season in late April will be very challenging however so if the Lakers are in a tight race for playoff position this may be a team that could fade down the stretch.

Houston Rockets: Kevin McHale's first season in Houston has to be considered a success at this point in the year. Given the transition and the failure to pull off the big trade not much was expected of this squad. After a 3-7 start to the season the Rockets looked like a team that would crumble to the bottom of the Western Conference especially considering how strong the Southwest Division is. It has not been the case as the Rockets are 14-6 since mid-January. An 11-3 home record is one of the best in the NBA but this team should have some concerns with a 6-10 road mark. Kyle Lowry has emerged as one of the better point guards in the league and the Rockets are getting excellent contributions from young players Courtney Lee and Chase Budinger off the bench as well as rookie Chandler Parsons making this a very deep squad even if McHale and the Rockets will continue to be ridiculed for releasing Jeremy Lin.

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Houston closes February with five of six games at home and while much of the early part of March will be spent on the road there are many games against losing teams in that tough travel stretch. Only four teams have more wins against 'top ten' teams in the league than Houston so this is a team that will be sticking around in the playoff race and could be a very tough first round match-up for one of the top teams. Nine of 14 April games will be against playoff contending teams so the Rockets will need to survive a tough final month but don't be surprised if this team moves up in the next several weeks.

Denver Nuggets: A few weeks ago Denver was 14-5 and looking like one of the league's best teams after sweeping a five-game road trip. The wheels have fallen off for the Nuggets in recent weeks however and this team is clinging to a playoff position as we approach the midpoint in the season. Injuries have been devastating as emerging star Danilo Gallinari will be out indefinitely after a serious ankle injury and both Tomofey Mozgov and Nene have missed several games in recent weeks leaving the Nuggets thin in the post. The emergence of Ty Lawson has been a great story but the current Denver lineup simply is not capable of competing with elite teams night-in and night-out. This is one of the highest scoring teams in the NBA at 103.4 points per game with very efficient shooting but those numbers have suffered with the injuries and this is one of the worst defensive teams in the league.

Denver is just 3-8 in the last eleven games and it could get worse before it gets better. The rest of February into early March features a brutal schedule with seven of the next eight opponents featuring a winning record and five of those eight games coming on the road, even though Denver does own one of the better road records in the league. Things might look ugly for the Nuggets in early March as this team could even dip below .500 but the remainder of the March schedule should allow this team to bounce back, especially if they can get healthy. Denver plays in the strongest division top-to-bottom in the NBA so the tightened schedule will leave all the Northwest Division teams with some of the tougher slates in the league and the Nuggets will likely be in a fight for one of the final playoff spots.

Memphis Grizzlies: After a great unexpected playoff run last season Memphis was expected to be a real threat this season but a MCL tear for leading scorer Zach Randolph early in the year threw a wrench into the plans. Marc Gasol has emerged as an all star to help the Grizzlies through the early season schedule and at 16-14 Memphis is still in a decent spot at this point in the season. Randolph could be back in a few weeks and the numbers for the Grizzlies should eventually improve. Memphis has struggled on offense, scoring less than 93 points per game and this is a below average shooting team. Solid defense and decent rebounding has kept Memphis in the mix.

At this point in the season Memphis has played a schedule rating as one of the toughest in the entire NBA so things in theory could get easier for the Grizzlies. Memphis is just 3-9 versus top 10 teams but only one team has had to play more games against that many high caliber teams. 18 of 30 games have been against top half teams and the early March schedule looks particularly favorable for Memphis. Memphis will also close the season with five of the final seven games against teams that currently have losing records so if they need a late push the Grizzlies may have the slate to make it happen and be a threat in the postseason again.

Portland Trailblazers: Despite barely being above .500 Portland has one of the best point differentials in the league. The Blazers still hold one of the tougher home courts in the NBA at 11-5 so far this season but this team is just 5-10 in road games. The injury to LaMarcus Aldridge does not appear to be too serious and the Blazers have competed well without him but they likely can't survive if he is absent for too long. Statistically Portland is above average on both offense and defense but this team has been plagued by inconsistency, capable of beating several top teams but also suffering the occasional bad loss. After a 7-2 start to the season Portland's pace has slowed down and since starting 3-0 the Blazers have not won three consecutive games since. Recent spats between Raymond Felton and Coach McMillan also may be signs of trouble.

The schedule has actually been fairly favorable for Portland so far this season and the upcoming slate will be challenging. The next five games are all against winning teams and mid-March will feature a seven-game road trip that features six difficult match-ups. Ten of the final 17 games of the season will be against winning teams including closing the year with five of the final six games on the road. While there is a lot to like about this Portland lineup the path ahead looks daunting and the Blazers are likely to stay on the outside looking in for the playoffs.

Utah Jazz: With Jerry Sloan and Deron Williams gone the Jazz were expected to be one of the worst teams in the NBA by many preseason projections. Utah started 1-3 to affirm some of those thoughts but then won nine of the next eleven including a couple of marquee wins to get some attention. Utah has since faded in a tough February schedule with losses in seven of nine games this month. While Utah lacks big stars Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap continue to be very productive and Gordon Hayward has really emerged in his second season. This remains a solid team but they have probably played above themselves so far this year to be at .500. Utah is a marginal defensive team, allowing over 45 percent shooting and over 97 points per game to rank near the bottom of the league. This is the worst 3-point shooting team in the league and a team that gets minimal scoring from the backcourt.

Utah is just 3-9 on the road this season and a road heavy schedule is coming up with eight of the next twelve games on the road. Eight of the final ten games of the season will be against winning teams so it is hard to see Utah surviving in the playoff chase. If Utah continues to struggle on the road the Jazz will have a tough time staying in the picture although this is a team that has performed better than most expected and could continue to surprise to some extent.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Minnesota is just 8-10 at home this season but with a 6-6 road mark the Wolves are still clinging to the playoff discussion, sitting two games below .500 and currently 11th in Western Conference. The Wolves were one of the stories of the season before the recent run for the Knicks as Ricky Rubio has been very impressive in his debut season and Kevin Love has rounded into one of the best forwards in the league. Minnesota has really struggled with turnovers this season and this is a poor shooting team despite all the points that Love gets inside the paint and this squad has delivered erratic results and has been marginal defensively in Rick Adelman's first season in Minneapolis.

Given how solid the Northwest Division is it will be tough for Minnesota to pick up ground and this team has lost four of the last five games to lose some momentum. The rest of February will be a critical period for this season as they face six winning teams to close the month. Minnesota needs to deliver a few upsets to stay relevant in this picture as prolonging the current losing run would essentially end the playoff hopes for this team given the shortened season. March won't get much easier including a seven-game road gauntlet in the middle of the month. There may be hope in the final month of the season as April will feature a lot of home games and many games against struggling teams. All in all it looks like a nice step forward year for the Wolves but this team may be another year away from ending a long playoff drought.

It is too soon to rule out a collapse for the top four teams Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Los Angeles Clippers, and Dallas and the gap is not that significant but those four teams have stood out in recent weeks as playoff caliber teams. At the bottom Golden State and Phoenix are still in striking distance but appear to have too many issues to deliver a great rise in the standings. One can feel fairly comfortable calling it quits on playoff hopes for Sacramento and New Orleans although both are far from mathematically eliminated.

  
HEADLINES
Sportsbook: Saturday's Playoff Games
Edwards: Saturday's Late Action
Lawrence: Opening Round Angles
Rogers: Sunday's Late Action
Mejia: Fearless Predictions
Nelson: Surprises and Disappointments
Lawrence: Zig-Zag Theory
Warriors beat Clips in playoff opener
Nets beat Raptors 94-87 in Game 1
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