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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News
Don't be surprised if you see these players \— Utah's Jarron Collins, rear, Matt Harpring, left, and Houston's Tracy McGrady \— and the rest of the Jazz and Rockets facing each other in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.

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)


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.<


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.


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.

Prediction: 53-29 final record, sixth best in the West, but the Jazz will land the No. 4 seed by virtue of their Northwest Division championship. In a rematch of last-year's tough, 7-game series, the No. 5 Rockets will again have the home-court advantage due to a better regular-season record.


Remaining schedule — Road games (7): at San Antonio, Sacramento, Portland, Seattle, L.A. Clippers, Denver, Utah. Home games (3): vs. Seattle, Phoenix, L.A. Clippers.

Comment: The Rockets came back down to earth after their amazing 22-game winning streak by losing three of their next four. They have seven home games left, four against teams with winning records. Look for the Rockets to go 6-4 in their remaining games.

Prediction: 55-27 overall, giving them the fourth best record in the West. That will mean the Rockets will get the home-court advantage over the Jazz in the first round despite being the No. 5 seed.


Remaining schedule — Road games (5): at New Jersey, Denver, Memphis, San Antonio, Houston. Home games (5): vs. Denver, Minnesota, Dallas, Golden State, Portland.

Comment: The Suns will have four games left against the three teams — Denver, Dallas and Golden State — that are fighting for their postseason lives. Three of those games are in Arizona, so Steve Nash and Co. will have a big say on which teams will join them as a lower-seeded playoff contender. Look for the Suns to go 6-4 in their final 10 games.

Prediction: 54-28, an impressive mark, but one that will give them just a No. 6 seed and force them into a classic first-round battle with the Lakers. The Kobe vs. Shaq stories will continue even though both will downplay the rivalry, saying that there is no more animosity between them.


Remaining schedule — Road games (5): at Phoenix, Seattle, L.A. Clippers, Golden State, Utah. Home games (5): Golden State, Phoenix, Sacramento, Houston, Memphis.

Comment: Denver is playing well right now, having won four games in a row entering Saturday night's big home battle against the Warriors. A 7-3 mark in their final 10 games seems realistic and would put them safely into the playoffs. Anything less than seven wins, however, would put Allen Iverson's club at risk of being home this postseason, which would be interesting since his former team, the Philadelphia 76ers, are almost a playoff lock in the East.

Prediction: 51-31 with the No. 7 seed in the West. That could match them up against the defending champion Spurs in the opening round.


Remaining schedule — Road games (6): at Denver, San Antonio, Dallas, Memphis, New Orleans, Phoenix. Home games (5): vs. Dallas, Sacramento, Denver, L.A. Clippers, Seattle.

Comment: Don Nelson's club has two games left against his former Dallas Mavs, the team the Warriors shocked in the first round of the playoffs last season. Two more wins over Dallas this season would likely put the Warriors into the playoffs, while keeping Dallas out. And Nellie would love it.

Prediction: 50-32, which would be good enough to give the Warriors the final playoff spot where they would face New Orleans in the opening round.


Remaining schedule — Road games (6): at Golden State, L.A. Clippers, L.A. Lakers, Phoenix, Portland, Seattle. Home games (4): Golden State, Seattle, Utah, New Orleans.

Comment: Oh, how the mighty have fallen. One year after posting the best regular-season record in the NBA, the Mavs look like they will finish with the ninth-best mark in the West and out of the playoffs completely. Their trade for Jason Kidd hasn't helped, as they've gone 0-9 against teams with .500 or better records since the deal. Having an injured Dirk Nowitzki down the stretch is a tough break and will cost them one of the final spots in the playoffs. Look for the Mavs to go 4-6 in their final 10 games, which won't quite be good enough.

Prediction: 49-33 and out of the playoffs in ninth place in the conference.

Projected playoff matchups

No. 1 New Orleans vs. No. 8 Golden State

No. 2 San Antonio vs. No. 7 Denver

No. 3 L.A. Lakers vs. No. 6 Phoenix

No. 4 Utah vs. No. 5 Houston

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