The Spurs have precious little margin for error left. Just a month ago, after beating the Pelicans in their last game before embarking on the annual Rodeo Road Trip, they were in 5th place, just a game behind the 4th placed Trailblazers, and had reason to hope for a late surge that might earn home court in the first round of the playoffs.
But then it all fell apart. The Spurs went 2-7 over the rest of the month, the 2nd worst record in the league over that time, and had the 2nd worst point differential to boot, getting outscored by 11.2 points per game. Now, with 19 games to go in the regular season, the Spurs are 34-29, a half game behind the 7th-placed Clippers.
If the playoffs were to start right now, the Spurs would meet the Warriors and the Clippers would get the Nuggets. But a lot can change over the last 6 weeks of the season.
The Kings and Lakers are lurking. They’re 2.5 and 3.5 games behind the Spurs, respectively, but even a mini-swoon could bring either back into the race. The Kings, especially, are a threat because they’ve already won the head-to-head tiebreaker and they come to San Antonio for one final game matchup on March 26th.
After the Clippers victory over the Kings on Friday night, they’ll play the Lakers on Monday and again on April 5th. The Clippers won the season series with the Kings, but are 1-1 against the Lakers, so those 2 games could be even more important. The Kings and Lakers will meet again as well, on March 24th, and the Kings will need a win to avoid losing that tiebreaker, too.
Outside of those head to head games, a lot will be determined by the vagaries of scheduling. The Lakers have 13 remaining games against teams at or over .500, the most of the group, the Kings have 10, and the Spurs and Clippers have the least, with just 9 such games.
The Spurs and Clippers have the most home games, too. The Lakers will play 10 at home and 10 away and the Kings have just 9 home games remaining and will be on the road for 11. The Clippers, meanwhile, will play at the Staples Center 13 of the 18 games they have left, including an “away” game against the Lakers. The Spurs will spend a little more time on the road, with 11 left at home and 8 away. 5 of those 8 away games are against lottery teams, though, which will help.
Given the scheduling advantage, and the bit of cushion that still exists, it’s unlikely either the Clippers or Spurs will fall out of the playoffs. FiveThirtyEight currently predicts the Spurs make the playoffs 88% of the time, most likely finishing tied with the Clippers at 44 wins, 4 games ahead of the Lakers and Kings.
Since the Spurs and Clippers split their series and neither is a division winner, the 7 seed would be determined by conference record in that case. The Spurs currently hold a 1 game advantage there, but both teams have 9 games remaining against teams in the West, and the Clippers have 1 more game against the bottom of the conference than the Spurs do.
That’s important because sliding into the playoffs as the 8 seed only to be summarily executed by the Warriors again doesn’t seem like much fun. Which brings us to the other end of the Western Conference playoff race.
The Warriors currently have a half game lead on the Nuggets for 1st place in the West. As good as the Nuggets have been, there’s not a team in the conference that wouldn’t much rather see Denver in the 1st round. That makes the positioning going on in the rest of the conference fascinating.
Golden State likely isn’t going to catch the Bucks or Raptors for home court advantage in a potential finals matchup, and they don’t appear concerned with any challengers in the West. They could easily coast into the playoffs, falling to the 2 seed. In that case, the Spurs could be better off in 8th, though engineering such a precise finish might be a little too risky.
On the other hand, the Spurs could go on another run. Even if they do, though, it’s unlikely they’ll move much higher in the standings. The 6th placed Jazz are 3 games ahead in the loss column and the Rockets are 4 games ahead. On top of that, Utah has an even easier schedule than the Spurs, with only 5 games remaining against teams over .500.
The Spurs have trapped themselves in another tense playoff race, and the best case scenario might be trying to upset a 56-57 win Nuggets team in the first round. That’s not an impossible task, but they’d be heavy underdogs. Still there are a lot of games left to play, and a whole host of scenarios that could play out. It’s gonna be an interesting month of basketball.