With only seven games left in the regular season, you'd think that the Utah Jazz would have a solid idea of who they could face in the opening round of the NBA playoffs, and if they themselves are postseason bound. However, the tight race in the Western Conference has left everything up in the air.
The only things we know for sure is Houston is No. 1 and Golden State is No. 2. It is still mathematically possible for the Jazz to end up anywhere from No. 3 to out of the playoffs entirely, and much the same can be said for the eight teams fighting for six available playoff slots.
While the Jazz probably won't face the Los Angeles Clippers (one game back of Utah) or Denver Nuggets (two games back), it's plausible to think that they could play anyone from the Rockets all the way down to the Timberwolves. So, here's a breakdown of who the Jazz — who currently have an 87 percent chance of making the postseason, according to FiveThirtyEight — could face in the playoffs:
Who saw the Rockets coming? All the talk before the season started pointed to the inevitability of another Golden State run to the NBA Finals, but Houston is the one looking unstoppable now. James Harden will be the MVP after a great season, averaging 30.7 points, 8.7 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game. And the Rockets are far from a one-player powerhouse as Chris Paul and Eric Gordon both average over 18 points per game. The Jazz are 0-4 against the Rockets this season, and the closest they've come is losing by 11 twice. This is the one team Utah really hopes to avoid in the opening round of the playoffs.
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors are wounded as they limp into the postseason. Steph Curry is out with a MCL sprain and will miss the rest of the regular season and possibly the entire first round of the playoffs as well. Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant have also been out recently, but both are expected to be fine before the playoffs start. While the Warriors are still plenty formidable even without Curry, the Jazz recently manhandled the admittedly short-handed Golden State squad 110-91. Utah holds a 2-1 advantage on the season with one more game before the end. Golden State struggles to match up with Rudy Gobert down low. Finishing No. 7 in the West and taking on the Warriors without Curry actually looks good for Utah.
Portland Trail Blazers
While Houston and Golden State are firmly No. 1 and No. 2 in the West, Portland is a team that's having to battle for home-court advantage heading down the stretch. The Trail Blazers have stumbled recently as they've lost three of their last five, including an embarrassing loss to Memphis on Wednesday. It doesn't help that they have to play Houston, San Antonio, Denver and Utah in their last four games of the season, and all of them are plenty motivated in the hotly contested West. The Jazz are 2-1 against Portland so far this year, and these two teams will face off in their regular-season finale. Still, it's unwise to dismiss a team with a duo like Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, who combine for 48.6 points per game. But Portland isn't nearly as deep as Houston or even the Curry-less Warriors. It would be tough to not like Utah's chances should this happen.
San Antonio Spurs
Here's where things really start to get chaotic in the West as the Spurs, along with Oklahoma City, hold a slim game and a half lead over the Jazz, currently in the No. 8 spot. While the fortunes of franchises rise and fall, the Spurs seem to be the one constant as they'll likely increase their playoff streak to 21 and tie the Trail Blazers for the second longest streak in NBA history. You know this is a different kind of NBA team when center Pau Gasol leads the team in assists. And this team will give the defensive-minded Jazz a run for their money as they are currently No. 1 in points allowed in the NBA. Kawhi Leonard is out for the moment, but there's no doubt he'll be ready come playoff time. However, LaMarcus Alridge is having knee issues. While it can be hard to tell in the closing moments of the regular season who is seriously injured and who is merely resting up for the playoffs, it would be wise to assume that the Spurs will be ready and healthy to face the Jazz should this matchup happen. The Jazz are 3-1 against the Spurs, although the last meeting ended in an overtime loss where Aldridge went off for 45.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Carmelo Anthony went on record promising that Oklahoma City will be in the playoffs, which goes to show you how tight this race is. Even though the Thunder no longer have the services of Durant, Russell Westbrook and Paul George have had no trouble scoring as they combine for 47.0 points per game. Anthony isn't having his best shooting year, but he's still a formidable veteran. Utah is 1-3 against the Thunder, but they played all of their games before Christmas and well before the Jazz started getting back into the playoff race. It wouldn't be easy, but Utah would probably give Oklahoma City much more of a fight than it has in the regular season.
New Orleans Pelicans
The last time the Jazz and Pelicans went at it, Anthony Davis made his first NBA triple-double and the Jazz won by 17. Utah owns a 3-1 regular-season record over New Orleans. Sure, the Pelicans have a pair of solid frontcourt players in Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. However, Utah would likely be the favorite should these two face off in the postseason.
The Timberwolves hold a 2-1 record over the Jazz this season, but they've played only once since Utah started to get hot. Utah won that meeting 116-108. Like Utah, Minnesota has one of the best young cores in the league thanks to time spent tanking to pick up lottery picks. And that's paid off with players like Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. But the Timberwolves are in a bind with top-scorer Jimmy Butler out after having knee surgery. As of March 28, there's still no timetable for Butler's return. It's still up in the air if he'll be back by the time the Jazz make a visit on Sunday. However, it's a safe bet he'll be back in some capacity by the playoffs.