SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz are in the thick of the playoff hunt as the post-All-Star break portion of the season is on the horizon. A postseason berth is nowhere near a certainty at this point, yet the Jazz are still well within striking distance of getting home-court advantage in the first round.
Before the NBA resumes play on Thursday (the Jazz don’t play again until Friday), Utah sits sixth in the Western Conference, just two games outside of fourth and home court, but a smaller 1.5 games out of the playoffs altogether.
With a complete pause in play until Thursday, here’s an up-to-date forecast for each of the top eight teams in the West, and how those forecasts could wind up impacting the Jazz.
Teams are listed by the order in which they currently sit in the standings. Remaining schedule of strength is according to Tankathon.com.
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors are nine games up on Utah and two games ahead of the second-place Denver Nuggets with 25 contests left and the 14th-hardest remaining schedule in the league. The Jazz and Warriors will likely only meet in the first round of the playoffs if Utah finishes in seventh or eighth in the West.
Many thought the Nuggets would be good this season, but perhaps not as excellent as they’ve been, and they’ve had success despite a bevy of injuries to key players. Still, Denver’s schedule is challenging the rest of the way (fourth in the league), although it might have enough of a cushion to not fall too far down the standings, if at all.
This would likely be a favorable first-round matchup for Utah. If the Jazz stay in sixth, could the Nuggets fall to third with their tough remaining slate?
Oklahoma City Thunder
After the Thunder had just a decent start despite a pretty easy early schedule, some wondered if the Jazz’s first-round opponent from last season would falter as things got tougher. Oklahoma City has answered the call, however, as it’s won 11 of its last 13 games.
The Thunder still have the hardest remaining schedule in the entire league, but they’re better than they were in last season’s playoffs and a team Utah would probably want to avoid in the first round. Can Oklahoma City rise to the second seed and can the Jazz avoid the No. 7 seed?
Portland Trail Blazers
Although the two sides split the season series, this would be a favorable first-round matchup for Utah compared to teams like Golden State and Oklahoma City. Can the Trail Blazers stave off the Houston Rockets for homecourt advantage, and can the Jazz move up to fifth?
Portland has the 17th-toughest schedule left.
The Rockets have had a rather funky season thus far, thanks in good part to injuries, especially recently. With the 15th-hardest remaining schedule, will they be able to make a move up, or will injuries keep them from rising too high? In any event, they would likely be a tough matchup for the Jazz in the postseason if they met in, say, the 4-5 matchup.
The biggest thing the Jazz have going for them is they’ve got the second-easiest schedule remaining in the NBA. The LA Clippers are the next closest among contending West teams at 23. In other words, Utah is in good position to move up. That being said, some of the Jazz’s next nine games aren’t cakewalks before the schedule really lightens up beginning March 13.
Denver, Portland and the San Antonio Spurs would likely be the most favorable realistic first-round matchups for Utah.
San Antonio Spurs
This season is once again affirming the idea that Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich should never be counted out. San Antonio is definitely weaker than in years past, but is in the playoff hunt and has a rather favorable remaining schedule (19th).
It’s a bit challenging to envision the Jazz and Spurs meeting in the first round, but perhaps if Utah gets to the fourth seed and San Antonio somehow gets to fifth?
Los Angeles Clippers
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The Clippers basically traded the present in favor of the future when they dealt Tobias Harris before the deadline, but are still hanging inside the top eight and have that favorable remaining schedule. Again, it’s difficult to see a first-round matchup against the Jazz.
The others: The Sacramento Kings (30-27) and Los Angeles Lakers (28-29) are realistically still in contention. The Kings got stronger at the deadline, while the Lakers have LeBron James, assuming he’s healthy. It’s reasonable to think one of them will jump the Clippers. Can the other bypass the Spurs? Los Angeles has the seventh-toughest schedule left, while Sacramento has the 21st-hardest.