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Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Nuggets losing steam in West playoff race

By John Hollinger

After a wild couple of days, we have some housekeeping to do regarding the Playoff Odds. For starters, Tuesday’s win by Dallas over Denver and San Antonio’s shocking loss to New Jersey removed most of the remaining drama from the Southwest division race. Dallas now projects to win the division in 91 percent of scenarios, while San Antonio has just a 9 percent chance.

Second, the Nuggets now seem in grave danger of opening the playoffs on the road. Denver is projected to land the fifth position and finish with 52 wins -- one fewer than both Dallas and Phoenix. The Nuggets also lose the tiebreak to Dallas and would need to beat the Suns on the road in April to win it against Phoenix.

Meanwhile, look out below. Denver has dropped five out of six without both Kenyon Martin and George Karl, and the schedule doesn’t get much easier going forward. For instance, Portland currently projects to take the No. 6 slot (they hold the tie-break over both San Antonio and Oklahoma City), but they could move into position to pass the Nuggets for fifth, especially with a win in Denver on Thursday.

If the Blazers win that game they’ll be in great shape to catch Denver at 51 wins -- rather than trailing by two games, as currently projected -- and would also win the tie-break based on conference record. Of course, the Blazers may want to stay right where they are. Dallas currently projects to take the No. 3 spot (automatically winning a tie with Phoenix as a division champion), and the Blazers have won the first three meetings between the teams.

According to Wednesday’s odds and after running all the tie-breaks, here's what the West pairings would be: Lakers-Thunder, Jazz-Spurs, Mavs-Blazers and Suns-Nuggets.

The other item of note out West is the difficulty of teams' remaining schedule. With very few gimmes left in conference play, nearly every Western power projects to go 4-4 or 5-3 over its final eight games. Several West clubs have enjoyed a steady diet of lightweights over the past month, but that party is over. For the most part, they’re now playing each other down the stretch.

Back East, Chicago’s loss to Phoenix and Toronto’s surprise win in Charlotte means the Raps are now 5-to-1 favorites to claim the last playoff spot in the East; Toronto is a game-and-a-half ahead, plus the Raptors own the tie-break.

Charlotte's loss and Miami’s cake schedule the rest of the way also basically locks the Bobcats into the No. 7 slot, making a Bobcats-Magic first-round pairing extremely likely. The most interesting drama remaining is whether Boston (projected to finish third) or Atlanta (fourth) will draw the surging Bucks in the first round.