We’ve got one major set of playoff scenarios left in the Western Conference. Part 1 of the West covered the current 3 through 8 seeds, but we’re going to keep things simple in the second part.
Why? Well, besides the fact that we covered just about every plausible scenario involving the Thunder, Pelicans, Spurs, Timberwolves, and Jazz in one go? If we add in the Clippers and/or Nuggets, all the who-beats-whom just basically reverts back to stuff we’ve already covered.
So with that in mind, we’re going to restrict this to…
WEST 7 Through 10 (Minnesota, Utah, LA Clippers, and Denver)
The Karl-Anthony Towns and Jeff Teague-led Wolves, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell‘s Jazz, the Clippers and Tobias Harris and Lou Williams, and the Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris-led Nuggets are four teams fighting for two spots with the Nuggets in particular with a surprising amont of control over their own destiny since three of their last seven games involve playing the Clippers once and Wolves twice. Win all three of those games and they might just vault themselves back into the playoffs.
The Clips face Utah and Denver; they could also play spoiler to the Pelicans and Spurs should they drag one or both of those teams down into the morass at the bottom half of the playoff eight, which is the other reason why we’re not considering New Orleans or San Antonio in these scenarios; the simple fact is that there are way too many what-ifs for even a wild projection to try and make sense of.
Sure, these teams have a lot to say to each other the rest of the way out as it stands, but there are only four of them and we can make some assumptions in order to get Denver into the tiebreaker to begin with.
Minnesota owns the two-way tiebreak with the Jazz no matter what happens in the game between them; the Wolves’ 9-4 division record gives them pole position. Utah is 6-8 against their own division; Denver is 6-6 but two of their remaining four games are at Oklahoma City and home against Portland. The other two are the previously-mentioned Wolves games, including the last game of the season.
All of the above having been said, the head-to-head records:
MIN: 2-1 UTA, 4-0 LAC, 2-0 DEN (8-1)
UTA: 1-2 MIN, 2-1 LAC, 2-2 DEN (5-5)
LAC: 0-4 MIN, 1-2 UTA, 2-0 DEN (3-6)
DEN: 0-2 MIN, 2-2 UTA, 0-2 LAC (2-6)
So Denver can’t catch Minnesota in the division race without quite a bit of help—if they tie in division record, Minnesota has Denver dead to rights in conference record, so the Wolves would need just one win in three tries against the Nugs and Jazz, plus Denver would have to beat a pair of current top-four teams, one of them on the road.
The rest of the two-way ties are fairly straightforward; if the Clippers beat Utah to draw level head-to-head, they’re still toast in conference record. Utah, meanwhile, has an inconvenient problem of being the worst division team in the Wolves-Jazz-Nuggets derby; the Jazz need to beat Minnesota and probably win in Portland to have any hope of forcing the Nuggets to conference record (where they win easily and have the Lakers twice and Grizzlies once to feast on besides) based on matching 8-8 division records.
So Minnesota has just about every tiebreaker. The only one they have left to lose involves losing to Denver twice, and even that’s wildly implausible.
If these four teams are 7 through 10, Minnesota is 7th. So let’s set them aside. There’s an exception we’ll get to a bit later where the Wolves are in some trouble, but even then they’re safe unless they fall apart.
A three-way tie between Utah, LA, and Denver for 8 through 10 is intriguing:
Denver’s out in this instance; the best they can do is 3-4 by beating the Clippers.
But if the Clippers beat the Jazz AND they have the Nuggets to force this to a three-team tiebreak? LA runs to 4-3 (or 5-2 if they beat Denver) in that case and the Jazz are 4-4. Clips in, Jazz out, even with a six-game difference in the loss column against their own conference.
Utah has the advantage, but if they really want to ensure their playoff lives, they better beat the Clippers. They’re dead meat if they don’t.
Where things get fun is if Minnesota, Utah, and Denver tie at 7-8-9 because the Clippers dropped out down the stretch.
Right now, their records against each other total out:
But if Minnesota loses out against their division rivals? That would put all three teams at 4-4 against each other. It would also mean that division record is the next tiebreaker.
Minnesota at least makes the playoffs in this scenario. They’re 9-7 in-division in the case described; the best the Jazz can do is 8-8. Denver, however, with wins over the Thunder and Blazers, goes 10-6 and wins the three-way tie, making the playoffs in 7th. Minnesota would be 8th in that instance; the Jazz then place 9th.
Minnesota is definitely making the playoffs unless they completely fall apart. They have nearly every possible tiebreaker against nearly every possible opponent and could still easily finish fourth; it’s not so wildly implausible that a late collapse by the Blazers could even place the Wolves third (but don’t bet your life on it.)
Utah is highly likely to make the playoffs, especially if they beat the Clippers and all but assuredly if they beat the Clippers and the Wolves, provided they don’t choke their other games (three of which are against sub-.500 teams and the fourth against a depleted Warriors squad likely to be resting up for the playoffs now that they’ve settled on a 2 seed) away.
The Clippers and Nuggets need to start winning and never stop, if not going undefeated in their last seven then going no worse than 5-2 for the Clips and 6-1 for the Nugs; it’s going to take 46 wins to even get their names into the discussion since they’re not stealing many tiebreaks if they only win 45 games.
Or they better hope that one or more of the Thunder, Pelicans, Spurs, Wolves, or Jazz spend the rest of the season with their hands firmly planted around their own throats.
The West is, for all practical purposes because of the schedule, an eight-team race for eight spots.