We’ve officially reached the stretch run of the NBA season. In a matter of two-and-a-half weeks, the regular season will be over and the playoffs will be upon us.
But as the Mavs continue to work their way through the Western Conference, not much at all is clear. At this point, only three teams — the Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies — have a multi-game lead over the team directly beneath them in the standings. The Warriors top the West, while Memphis sits 7.5 games behind and 2.5 up on third place. The Mavs, meanwhile, are 3.5 games up on eighth-place Oklahoma City.
Dallas has just 11 games remaining on its schedule and no team in the West playoff picture has more than 14. That means there’s not much time to sort out what’s left after the carnage of the regular season finally ends. This season’s West is one of the deepest and best conferences in the history of the NBA, and certainly since the league has expanded to 30 teams. Ten teams are vying for eight spots, and the 11th-seeded Utah Jazz have a better record than eighth-place Charlotte out East. Simply making it to the playoffs is a heck of an accomplishment this season, but the eight teams who survive aren’t going to admit that. It’s all about winning the championship, and in a conference this deep, no matter what seed you are, you truly believe you have a chance at the trophy.
Regardless of the uncertainty, we do know this: The Mavs’ magic number for clinching a playoff spot is six, meaning any combination of six Mavs wins or Suns losses will clinch yet another postseason berth for Dallas. With all that in mind, here’s an early look at the road ahead for the Mavericks, as well as an explanation of how some things might shake out in the Western Conference after all teams have played 82.
The Mavs’ upcoming schedule is going to be a true test. Five of their next six games are against West playoff teams, and three of their next four are on the road. That includes an upcoming home-and-home series with the Spurs and trips to Indiana and Oklahoma City. While the Pacers aren’t in the playoffs at the moment in the East, they’re just half a game out of eighth and two games out of seventh place.
Following that stretch, Dallas will play Phoenix, Denver, the Lakers, and Utah, with the final three coming on the final road trip of the season. The Mavs will close things up against Portland at home on April 15. The way this season has gone, it’s very likely that that game will have some serious playoff implications as far as seeding goes. It’s likely that neither team will have any position locked up by that point, which is absurd. Normally the last game of the season means little more most teams, but this season that’s not going to be the case at all. Much like last year, all 82 games are going to matter in the standings.
The home-and-home against the Spurs has all sorts of importance. San Antonio is currently one game ahead of Dallas in the West standings and one game behind the fifth-seeded Clippers. Two Mavs wins against the Spurs would not only push Dallas ahead of San Antonio, but it would also give Dallas a 3-1 edge in the season series, which would give the Mavs the tiebreaker advantage if it came down to those two teams vying for one seed. The Mavs are also looking to win the season series against the Thunder, who they play on April 1 in OKC. With a win, Dallas would clinch the season series 3-1.
Dallas needs wins against Portland and Houston to notch those season series at 2-2 apiece. Houston sits in third place in the West right now, four spots up on Dallas, but just three games separate the two. Portland, meanwhile, has a cozy lead in fourth place because the Blazers are first place in their division, five games ahead of second-place Oklahoma City. However, let’s say the Blazers and Mavs finish 4-5 in the West, respectively. Despite Portland’s division championship, the Mavs would still have homecourt advantage in the first round if Dallas had the better overall record. So, in that scenario, even fifth place would ensure a Game 1 at home. It’s important to mention, though, that if the Mavs and Blazers finished tied in terms of record, Portland would earn homecourt regardless of the season series advantage because it won its division.
The tiebreaker scenarios otherwise are pretty complicated, so let’s work that out. The first way to separate teams is via head-to-head record. That’s why winning season series is so important, which is why the Mavs want to gain the edge over San Antonio and OKC, and it’s also why Dallas doesn’t want to lose the Houston and Portland games.
If the series is split, the next point is division record, but only if those teams are in the same division. The Mavs’ 6-7 record against the Southwest is better than both Houston’s (5-6) and San Antonio’s (4-6), but those marks are going to change drastically between now and the end of the season. Each team plays 16 division games. A 3-0 record against the Spurs and Rockets would ensure the Mavs would have the highest division record of all three teams.
But let’s say the teams don’t play in the same division or their division records are identical. The next tiebreaker is winning percentage within the conference. The Mavs are 23-19 against the West, virtually an identical record to San Antonio’s 23-18 mark. The other five teams ahead of the Mavs all have better West records, though Portland’s 24-15 record is close. The Blazers have the most games against West teams remaining among all West playoff teams. Of their 14 remaining games, just one comes against an East team.
The odds of it getting past conference record are extremely slim, but the next tiebreaker is record against playoff teams within the same conference. Those are all going to change dramatically from here on out, as these teams are all going to see a lot of each other between now and the end of the season. The Mavs’ upcoming stretch of schedule is going to influence that portion of their record one way or the other. Let’s hope it’s for the better. After that comes record against playoff teams in the opposite conference, and then comes point differential.
The jockeying for playoff position is going to be incredible to watch from here on out. All 10 of the teams still alive for playoff spots are in position to climb fairly high up the table if the cards fall their way, but the best thing to do when there’s that much hullabaloo is just to focus on your own business. If the Mavs win games, they will climb in the standings. They can’t waste time watching what everyone else is doing. That’s for us to worry about. All they need to do is focus on the games they’re playing, and everything else will take care of itself.
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