NBA: Down the stretch they come . . .

A look at how the wild Western Conference race for the playoffs may turn out

Published: Sunday, March 30 2008 12:16 a.m. MDT

Nine teams have the possibility of winning 50-plus. Just six games are separating first place from the ninth. Six teams are two or fewer games from having the conference's best record and only three weeks remain.

Indeed, the NBA's Western Conference playoff race is the best and closest in league history. Projected first-round matchups are changing on a daily basis. Then again, seeding this year may just not matter. The teams are all simply too closely matched to think of any playoff outcome as being an upset.

How will it all turn out? Even at this late date in the NBA regular season, it's tough to figure out. After all, who could have predicted that the Lakers would lose consecutive home games to the lowly Bobcats and Grizzlies?

Still, here's an educated guess as to who will be playing who to open the postseason:

(Records and remaining games are listed through outcomes from Friday night)

NEW ORLEANS HORNETS (49-22)

Remaining schedule — Road games (7): at Toronto, Orlando, Miami, Minnesota, L.A. Lakers, Sacramento and Dallas. Home games (4): vs. New York, Golden State, Utah, L.A. Clippers.

Comment: A split in the four games remaining against the other strong Western teams may be enough to land the Hornets the No. 1 overall seed in the West. New Orleans has three sets of back-to-backs left, however, and could drop an unexpected game or two along the way. But don't be surprised if Chris Paul, David West and the rest of the Hornets go 8-3, at worst, in their remaining games.

Prediction: Expect a 57-25 final record, which will give them the No. 1 overall seed in the West, playing the No. 8 Golden State Warriors in the first round.<

SAN ANTONIO SPURS (50-23)

Remaining schedule — Road games (4): at Utah, Portland, L.A. Lakers, Sacramento. Home games (5): vs. Houston, Golden State, Phoenix, Seattle, Utah.

Comment: The defending champs have the roughest remaining schedule. Of their nine games, only two are against sub-.500 clubs. It will be a good pre-playoff test for the Spurs, for sure. San Antonio, however, hasn't been quite as impressive this year and a 6-3 mark with this tough remaining schedule is probably as good as they can expect.

Prediction: 56-27 final mark, finishing with the same record as the Lakers. The Spurs can earn the tie-breaking advantage over the Lakers with a win on April 13. That would give San Antonio the No. 2 seed with the seventh-seeded Denver Nuggets as their opening opponent.

LOS ANGELES LAKERS (49-24)

Remaining schedule — Road games (3): at Sacramento, Portland, L.A. Clippers. Home games (6): vs. Washington, Portland, Dallas, New Orleans, San Antonio, Sacramento.

Comment: On paper the Lakers have the easiest schedule left. They only leave the Staples Center two times (one of their "road" games is against the Clippers in the building they share). Of course, they could have helped themselves tremendously by taking care of business against Charlotte and Memphis. Those losses will prove to be the reason the Lakers won't have the top seed in the conference.

Prediction: 56-26 overall and the No. 3 seed in the playoffs with a best-of-seven date with the ex-Laker star center Shaquille O'Neal and the new-look Phoenix Suns.

UTAH JAZZ (48-28)

Remaining schedule — Road games (4): at Minnesota, New Orleans, Dallas, San Antonio. Home games (5): vs. Washington, Minnesota, San Antonio, Denver, Houston.

Comment: The Jazz end the season with six brutal games against top Western teams, including two against the Spurs. Utah ends the season at San Antonio in a building where it has never won a game. Look for Utah to go 1-3 on the road and 4-1 at home the rest of the way.

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