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Playoff Push - West
Eastern Conference

As the NBA All Star Break approaches, it is a chance for the teams sitting outside of the playoff picture to regroup and focus on making a big second half run. Here are the first four teams on the outside of the playoff picture in the Western Conference and an assessment of the chances they have to get it done.
Memphis Grizzlies (29-23): After a 10-15 start through mid-December it was easy to forget that Memphis was in the Western Conference finals last season. This is a different team however as Head Coach David Joerger replaced a very successful Lionel Hollins in the off-season due to some internal differences. Memphis enters the All Star break as one of the hottest teams in the entire NBA, going 14-4 in the last 18 games to climb to the edge of the Western Conference playoff picture. Despite the winning record Memphis barely owns a positive point differential on the season and the Grizzlies are only 14-14 in home games as the only team in the NBA with a winning record that does not have a winning record at home.

On the flipside the Grizzlies are 15-9 on the road, better than everyone but Oklahoma City and San Antonio in the Western Conference. The Southwest division is certainly a difficult group and Memphis has been hurt by going just 2-11 in those division games but going 15-7 against the rest of the Western Conference. Memphis has had to play a top 10 schedule this season and the schedule in the second half starts favorably with only two of the first 10 games coming against winning teams. The Grizzlies do have a brutal gauntlet of games in the late March and early April part of the calendar but this team appears poised to climb into the postseason field.
Minnesota Timberwolves (25-28): In a season where Minnesota was expected to break through the Wolves have disappointed, playing right around .500 all season and unable to get over the hump. Minnesota has statistics that suggest a much better performance but this team has been burned by a great deal of close losses. Minnesota has also been outclassed in most games against the top teams in the league, going just 3-17 against the top 10 teams in the Sagarin ratings but 22-11 against the rest of the league.

Whether Minnesota can get back into the picture should be determined early in the second half with a very tough late February schedule, opening the second half with a home date with the Pacers and then going on a tough five-game road trip out west. March should be a strong month for Minnesota with a favorable schedule but there is not much more room for error needing to jump two teams and seeing how well Memphis has played lately. Minnesota should have a good chance to get above .500 which would be a nice step forward for the team but given the nature of the roster and the elevated expectations it might not be enough to stave off major changes in the offseason as this was supposed to be the year to make the leap.
Denver Nuggets (24-27): The Nuggets had the fourth best record in the NBA last season including an incredible 38-3 record at home. Brian Shaw replaced George Karl last summer and so far the results have not matched the great success that Karl had with the Nuggets. Denver is tied with Minnesota sitting six games behind Golden State for the last spot in the playoffs in the West at the break with surging Memphis sitting ahead in the race as well. The Nuggets have had to play one of the toughest rated schedules in the league so far and it has shown with a negative point differential and just a 14-11 record at home after the dominant results last season. After a strong month of January Denver is slumping into the break with four straight losses including a blowout loss at Minnesota on Wednesday in a key game in the standings.

Opportunity is ahead for the Nuggets in late February however as seven of the next 10 games will be at home. Denver will face one of the toughest closing schedules in the league however as the final 12 games on schedule feature two games each with the Grizzlies, Spurs, Rockets, and Warriors, as well as single matches with the Thunder and Clippers. Even if the Nuggets make a run in March it seems unlikely that this team will be able to hold on to a playoff spot.
New Orleans Pelicans (23-29): The Pelicans are just 1-17 against the Sagarin top 10 this season but New Orleans enters the break with some growing confidence, having won eight of the final 13 games of the first half of the season. Jrue Holiday should return to action soon and the schedule lines up with some favorable opportunities ahead. New Orleans will be on the road for seven of the first nine games in the second half but only four of the first 11 games out of the break will be against winning teams. In March, the Pelicans will play a stretch with 10 of 11 games at home so the schedule does line up with some promise, although sitting 7.5 games out currently with four teams to pass will make it a great long shot.

New Orleans has a closing schedule featuring Portland, Phoenix, and Oklahoma City and Houston twice each in the final six games for a brutal finish, though many of those teams could be locked into a playoff position in the final two weeks. While New Orleans is the deepest sleeper to have a chance to climb into the playoff picture, they are also much less likely to face an internal implosion like Minnesota and Denver appear to be on the verge of. Keeping up with Memphis and seeing Dallas, Phoenix, or Golden State crash out of the field seems unlikely but it has been a positive season for the Pelicans as they have almost topped last season’s win count at the break and this team has a bright future.

HEADLINES Books adjust to Celtics
Celtics beat Mavs for 16th straight win
Cavs win 5th straight, rout Pistons 114-98
Nuggets beat Kings 114-98 without coach
Spurs win 20th straight at home vs. Hawks
Fired-up Embiid powers 76ers over Jazz
Knicks hand Clippers ninth straight loss
Beal leads Wizards past Bucks, 99-88
NBA veteran David Lee retires at 34
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