Monday, April 9, 2012

Homestretch Handicapping: Griz Push for Playoff Positioning Starts Tonight

Posted By on Mon, Apr 9, 2012 at 9:36 AM

Last week, the Grizzlies conquered the toughest part of their schedule with a 5-2 record in a murderous seven-games-in-nine-nights stretch. Now, with the team playing its best basketball, with the roster as whole and healthy as it's going to get, and with the schedule lightening up considerably in the final weeks, only an entirely unexpected collapse is going to keep the Grizzlies from returning to the playoffs this spring. (ESPN.com's John Hollinger has the team's playoff odds up to 99.6 percent.)

Starting tonight, with a crucial home game against a Los Angeles Clippers team 1.5 games ahead of the Griz in the standings, the final weeks should be about playoff positioning: Can the Grizzlies move up and secure homecourt advantage in a playoff series for the first time in franchise history?

With that in mind, let's look at the 10 teams remaining in the Western Conference playoff race: Where they're at today, how their schedule sets up in the final weeks, and where they may end up:

Team: San Antonio Spurs
Record: 40-14
Games Left: 12
Home/Road: 6/6
Games vs. Elite Teams (above .700): 0
Games vs. Other Playoff Contenders: 7
Outlook: The Spurs play the Lakers three times in their final dozen games, but two of those are at home. Of their six road games, only one — April 17th against the Lakers — is against a team with a record above .600, but that road schedule does include a three-games-in-the-nights set, where you would imagine they will rest their vets in one of those games.
Prediction: I like the deep, focused Spurs to mostly keep up their torrid current pace and ride a moderate remaining schedule to the top seed in the West for the second straight year. Final record: 49-17, first seed.


Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
Record: 41-15
Games Left: 10
Home/Road: 4/6
Games vs. Elite Teams (above .700): 0
Games vs. Other Playoff Contenders: 6
Outlook: The Thunder lost three in a row before getting back on track with last night's home game against the lottery-bound Raptors. The team's strength-of-schedule isn't that bad the rest of the way. They've got three games left against Sacramento and half of the playoff contenders they play are of the low-end variety (Milwaukee, Phoenix, Denver). But there's a five-game road trip in there that starts in Minnesota and then goes to the West Coast for four games.
Prediction: The Thunder lost the season series to the Spurs, 2-1, and that tiebreaker will be the difference. Final Record: 49-17, second seed.

Team: Los Angeles Lakers
Record: 35-22
Games Left: 9
Home/Road:4/5
Games vs. Elite Teams (above .700): 4
Games vs. Other Playoff Contenders: 2
Outlook: The Lakers have lost two straight to middling playoff contenders (Houston and Phoenix) and are dealing with issues surrounding stars Kobe Bryant (who missed the last game with a shin injury) and Andrew Bynum (whose talent is matched by his surliness and obstinance). The remaining schedule is pretty tough, with four against the Spurs/Thunder and five of nine on the road, where the Lakers (12-16) have proven very beatable.
Prediction: If Bryant is back on the court soon, I think the Lakers rally to split the four games with Thunder/Spurs and hold their ground. But they're vulnerable. Final Record: 41-25, third seed.

Team: Los Angeles Clippers
Record: 34-22
Games Left: 10
Home/Road:3/7
Games vs. Elite Teams (above .700): 2
Games vs. Other Playoff Contenders: 5
Outlook: The Clippers have won eight of their past nine games but most of those wins have come at home against middling competition (wins at home against the Grizzlies and at Dallas stand out) and there continue to be reports about problems behind the scenes in Clipperland. They also face the toughest remaining schedule of any of the Western playoff contenders, with seven of 10 on the road and seven of 10 against potential playoff teams.
Prediction: The Clippers split the rest. Final Record: 39-27, fifth seed.

Team: Memphis Grizzlies
Record: 32-23
Games Left: 11
Home/Road: 7/4
Games vs. Elite Teams (above .700): 1
Games vs. Other Playoff Contenders: 4
Outlook: After their brutal stretch over the last couple of weeks, the Grizzlies schedule lightens up. Their next four opponents are all Western Conference playoff contenders (and teams that, collectively, the Grizzlies have not beaten at all this season), but only one of the team's last seven games is against a team in a playoff race, and that's the final night against Orlando. Who knows if that game will end up being meaningful to both teams or whether the Magic will continue to unravel. The Grizzlies have already lost the tiebreaker to the Clippers, which means they'll need to have a better record to get ahead of them in the race for homecourt, making tonight's game crucial.
Prediction: The Grizzlies trip up in a home game against a lesser team (Utah, maybe), but finish strong. Final Record: 41-25, a 1-2 season-series loss to the Lakers keeping the team in the fourth seed.

Team: Houston Rockets
Record: 31-25
Games Left: 10
Home/Road: 5/5
Games vs. Elite Teams (above .700): 1
Games vs. Other Playoff Contenders: 5
Outlook: Will play five games in a row against fellow bottom-half competitors Utah/Phoenix/Denver/Dallas that could have a lot of this sorted out before we hit the final week. Have been good lately, with two wins over Lakers, one over the Grizzlies, and one at Chicago.
Prediction: They go 6-4 the rest of the way. Final Record: 37-29, sixth seed.

Team: Dallas Mavericks
Record: 31-26
Games Left: 9
Home/Road:3/6
Games vs. Elite Teams (above .700): 1
Games vs. Other Playoff Contenders:4
Outlook: Mavs are sliding, losing three of their past four and six of their past 10. Their strength of schedule isn't bad the rest of the way, but they play twice as many on the road.
Prediction: The Mavs, even with the Lamar Odom distraction dealt with, stumble down the finish with a losing record the rest of the way. Final Record: 35-31, seventh seed.

Team: Denver Nuggets
Record: 30-26
Games Left: 10
Home/Road:5/5
Games vs. Elite Teams (above .700): 1
Games vs. Other Playoff Contenders: 6
Outlook: Tough-ish schedule includes a significant home/road back-to-back with Houston.
Prediction: The Nuggets play .500 ball. Final Record, 35-31 to tie a sliding Dallas, but the Mavs have the tiebreaker after winning the season series 3-1. Eight seed.

Team: Phoenix Suns
Record: 29-27
Games Left: 10
Home/Road: 5/5
Games vs. Elite Teams (above .700): 2
Games vs. Other Playoff Contenders: 5
Outlook: A tough remaining schedule is cupcake-free, with Portland and Minnesota the worst opponents still on tap.
Prediction: A four-game road trip starting tonight knocks them out early. Phoenix stumbles into the lottery at 32-34.

Team: Utah Jazz
Record: 29-28
Games Left: 9
Home/Road: 5/4
Games vs. Elite Teams (above .700): 1
Games vs. Other Playoff Contenders: 5
Outlook: Jazz have lost six of nine and have played over their heads to have a winning record to this point.
Prediction: The Jazz continue to slide a little but still over-perform expectations in the end. Final record: 33-33.

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