Commentary

PER Diem: April 9, 2009

In the West, playoff teams are still jockeying for position. Here's how it could play out

Updated: April 9, 2009, 4:54 PM ET
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Dirk NowitzkiGlenn James/NBAE/Getty ImagesDirk Nowitzki's Mavs and Carlos Boozer's Jazz are fighting to avoid the West's No. 8 spot.

Two days ago I looked at the West's top threats to battle the Lakers for the conference crown. In the 48 hours since, something very interesting has happened: The standings separated into three distinct groups.

At the top is L.A., obviously, plus Denver is now all but assured of the second seed. The Nuggets will clinch the Northwest Division with one more win, and given that they play Sacramento at home Friday, I think we can pretty much pencil them in for that. Clinching the No. 2 seed outright would require only one additional win (at L.A. or at Portland) or one loss by Houston. So let's presume the Nuggets are No. 2.

Behind them is where it gets interesting as we now have two blocks of three: an upper tier with Portland, Houston and San Antonio, each of which is 50-28; and a lower tier of New Orleans, Dallas and Utah, with only a game separating those three. Where those clubs finish in their three-team blocks has huge implications for the playoffs, obviously, particularly in the upper tier where one of the teams won't have home-court advantage in the first round.

That's where we get into the nitty-gritty, and we'll start with the upper tier. The Playoff Odds project all three teams to finish with 53 wins, making for a messy tiebreak situation.

For starters, we still don't have a clear winner in a tie between San Antonio and Houston. Both teams have six division losses and 16 conference losses, meaning that if each wins out from here, the tiebreak would be record against playoff teams in the conference -- which belongs to the Rockets right now (13-12 versus the Spurs' 10-13) and would continue to do so in any scenario where the teams tied in regular-season and division record.

So basically, if the two teams tie, it could come down to when the losses happen -- Houston still has two tough division games left, while the Spurs host New Orleans on the last day of the season. But as long as they stay tied in division losses, Houston will win the tiebreak by virtue of its record against conference playoff teams.

San Antonio will also lose the tiebreak to Portland based on head-to-head record, so that would push the Spurs down to the No. 5 seed if they don't win their division. But the Spurs will beat out Portland for the No. 3 seed if they're both tied and San Antonio wins the division -- a new rule put in this season automatically gives tiebreakers to division champions.

The Blazers, incidentally, lose home-court advantage to Houston if they both finish tied at No. 4 based on the Rockets' 2-1 series win (a rule that needs serious revision, by the way -- Houston got both wins on its home court and there wasn't a fourth game in Portland to even things out, so it seems horribly unfair to give the Rockets home-court based on this).

Given those parameters, the remaining schedules and the injuries facing San Antonio, the most likely outcome would appear to be Houston winning the division and going in as the No. 3 seed, Portland entering the playoffs at No. 4 and San Antonio limping as the fifth seed and visiting Portland to start the postseason.

We have a similar tangle to unravel at the bottom of the playoff picture, where Dallas has made a strong push to blast out of the No. 8 position and near-certain first-round elimination against the Lakers. The Mavs caught Utah at 47-31 on Wednesday night and are just a game behind No. 6 New Orleans, which they play twice this weekend.

The big problem for the Mavs right now is the tiebreaker situation. Dallas loses the tiebreak to Utah based on conference record and will lose it to New Orleans based on division record even if it sweeps both games this weekend (the Mavs lost their first two meetings, so they wouldn't prevail on head-to-head).

The schedule isn't doing them any favors either. Utah has a suddenly winnable game in San Antonio, and got a gift from the league with an Apr. 14 game at L.A.: There's a good chance Cleveland will have clinched the top overall seed by then and the Jazz will get to romp past the Lakers' scrubs; the Mavs are likely to get no such luck in their season-ender against Houston.

What it basically means, then, is that Dallas will be the No. 8 seed unless it wins both games against the Hornets this weekend. In the latter scenario, a move up to No. 6 is possible, though No. 7 still would seem more likely.

The Jazz also can pass the Hornets, who finish with a difficult four-game slate that includes the two Dallas games, a visit to San Antonio and a game at Houston. Utah owns the tiebreak by virtue of a 3-0 season sweep, and two of their final four games shape up as automatic W's (home against the Clippers and Golden State). If you're a glass-half-full guy, however, the Hornets still retain a sliver of a chance of winning the division if they can win all four games.

The Playoff Odds still see New Orleans hanging on to No. 6 by a game over Utah, but they don't know there's a good chance the Lakers punt that final game, or that the Jazz's visit to reeling San Antonio is much more winnable now than it looked a few days ago.

So I'll maintain that the most likely scenario remains Utah at No. 6, New Orleans at No. 7 and Dallas at No. 8 -- with the latter two swapping spots if the Mavs pull off the unlikely weekend sweep.

If it plays out that way, we'll get Lakers-Mavs, Nuggets-Hornets, Rockets-Jazz and Blazers-Spurs in the first round. Of course, the standings in the West shift rapidly given how tightly packed the teams are, so I expect a few more course corrections between now and Wednesday.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.