The only thing that we know about the Western Conference playoffs right now is that the teams currently ranked first through eighth will be there. In what capacity, what order, and with who holding what advantages is still yet to be determined. That’s absolutely terrific, and even though the rooting interests of most of the readers of this site are with Dallas ending up as high in the standings as possible, we’re looking at what could be four dynamite first-round series in the West. You have to appreciate just how entertaining this opening round is poised to be.
The natural inclination for fans of a team in the Mavs’ position is to start picking out favorable match-ups: Dallas may want San Antonio but doesn’t want Portland, kind of wants Oklahoma City but shouldn’t target Phoenix. Stop. Stop right now. Some teams are better suited to beat the Mavs than others, but trying to wrap your head around what needs to happen in order for Dallas to line up against any other team in the West is a surefire headache. Whatever will be, will be. Cheering for and against other teams is a pretty useless endeavor, especially for a team in the Mavs’ particular situation. To be honest, all of that will be a futile enterprise if something doesn’t click with the Mavs soon. With the way Dallas has played over the last few games, especially when juxtaposed against the success of San Antonio or Phoenix, are there really any match-ups that can be considered favorable?
The Mavs have played confidently against the Spurs since 2006, but no one should want a piece of Manu Ginobili right now. The Suns’ late-season success is even more impressive than their start to the season; Phoenix’s defense is better than it’s been all year (with Robin Lopez in the lineup, at least) and Amar’e Stoudemire has been a monster. Portland may seem like the weakest team on paper, but we’ve seen the results when they go head-to-head with Dallas. The Thunder waltzed into the AAC this weekend and stomped the Mavs in a game that was supposed to be important for both teams.
That’s not even mentioning the Utah Jazz or the Denver Nuggets, two impressive squads in their own right that are more than capable of sending the Mavs home early.
The chance of the standings remaining as they are now is incredibly small, particularly considering the fact that Dallas, Denver, Utah, and Phoenix are currently sitting at identical records (50-27). Oklahoma City is just a game and a half back of that mark, and San Antonio two and a half games back. All of that creates a potentially ridiculous tiebreaker endgame, in which the difference between home court advantage, a favorable match-up, or an early collision course with the Lakers is decided by something like conference record or conference record against playoff-eligible teams.
Now, those are things you can root for. There’s nothing wrong with wanting the Mavs to do as well as possible, but the most important games on the schedule are going to be against other teams battling for playoff positioning (4/9 vs Portland, 4/14 vs San Antonio). Every game left will be against a Western Conference team (the fourth tiebreaker), and two of the Mavs’ remaining opponents are divisional foes (the third tiebreaker). It doesn’t take much to deduce that the games against Portland and San Antonio are going to be huge for Dallas, but their game on Wednesday against the Memphis Grizzlies could become pretty crucial as well. The divisional record tiebreaker only helps the Mavs should they be tied with the Spurs, but with so many variables at play, Dallas needs every advantage they can possibly get.
The most interesting wrinkle of the playoff race in the West has to be the influence of division winners (first tiebreaker). In 2006, Dallas was thrown into a second-round series with San Antonio, despite the Mavs and Spurs being the class of the conference, because of an odd valuation of division leaders. Playoff seeding rules regarding division winners have since been altered, but they’re going to play an incredibly significant role in the West as well as the East. Supposing Dallas can hang on to their 2.5 game lead over SanAn, they’ll be guaranteed a top four seed. It’s hard to pin down whether or not that’s a definite advantage for the Mavs (what if that top four seed ends up being the fourth, which pits them against a formidable first round foe and then the Lakers in the conference semifinals?), but it’s about as important as divisions get. Maybe the lines drawn between divisions and the teams included within them are somewhat arbitrary, but they’re essentially going to decide the first round match-ups in the West should the playoff picture remain similar to where it stands now.
We already knew that division leader status could decide a tie between the Hawks and the Celtics, but in this case the fortunes of the entire Western Conference could be decided by how many times the Nuggets beat up on the Timberwolves.