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Monday, April 5, 2010
Delightful volatility in the Western playoff picture

By Henry Abbott

There are four Western teams -- Dallas, Denver, Utah and Phoenix -- tied with 50-27 records at the moment.

It's something of a coincidence merely to find that those four teams are all in a moment where they have played 77 of 82 regular-season games.

That they have each -- we're talking about half the West's playoff teams here -- won precisely the same number is thrilling, with tremendous implications for meaningful games between now and the end of the season.

Not to mention, that just as they each have 27 losses, there are teams with 28 (Oklahoma City), 29 (San Antonio) and 30 (Portland) on their heels, too. And those teams are laying on the pressure.

And there's sure to be more excitement in the season's final week-and-a-half. The conference's top three teams, after all the tie-breakers, are the Lakers, Mavericks and Nuggets, and they're doing their best to keep things interesting. Over their last 10 games, they have combined to create a tepid 16-14 record. (And even the Lakers, who are a cinch for first in the West with 22 losses, are still fighting for homecourt advantage in the Finals against Orlando, which has 23 losses. Every team is still trying.)

Meanwhile the five lower-seeded Western playoff teams -- the Jazz, Suns, Thunder, Spurs and Blazers -- have combined to create a 38-12 record over their last 10 games. And five of those 12 losses came from within that group of five.

The point being: If momentum matters, there's a lot it in the West's seeds four through eight, who are bunched up very tightly behind the teams ahead of them.

Which makes the job of predicting first-round matchups as tough as ever, and it makes several late-season matchups extremely important. It's almost a lock that some crunch time make or miss in the season's final days will determine the entire Western playoff picture.

The make or miss that will be heard 'round the world is most likely to come when West teams are playing each other -- making any win or loss twice as impactful on the playoff standings, as one team will move up as another moves down. With a tip of the cap to the schedule-makers, it's worth noting that there are several such games coming. In fact, after tonight's hiatus, teams in this dogpile face each other every night the rest of the way:
After that, the playoffs begin. And who will be facing whom? The prediction here is that we'll need until late next Wednesday night to find out.