West playoff picture beginning to take shape

Denver’s win over Portland pretty much hermetically seals the West’s top five from the bottom three; all the races for seeding from here on out should be between the four teams fighting for 2-5 seeds (Utah, Dallas, Phoenix, Denver), and the three fighting for slots 6-8 (Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Portland).

The biggest prize left is the Northwest Division title, which Denver can still win despite a difficult closing kick. The Nuggets are a game back, but in part because of their tie-break, they have a 28.5 percent chance of wresting it from the Jazz, according to Friday’s Playoff Odds.

The Odds also foresee a three-way tie between Dallas, Phoenix and Denver for the No.3 spot. If that happens the Mavs get the No. 3 seed by virtue of being a division champ. The tie-break between Denver and Phoenix is still to be determined; if the Suns win the rematch on April 13 in Phoenix they’ll own it, but if they lose it will come down to conference record. The Nuggets own that advantage now but won’t if the Suns lose at least once in games with Detroit and Milwaukee this weekend. That way, it would be impossible for the two teams to end in a tie.

Portland’s loss to Denver on Thursday is also good news for Oklahoma City, which now has the upper hand for the No. 6 seed and may not need to beat the Blazers in Portland on April 12 to get it. Based on current standings, that seed comes gift-wrapped with a winnable first-round pairing against Dallas, while the Blazers draw their nightmare: Utah. (If you’re wondering, the Blazers and Jazz play at 10:30 p.m. ET on April 14, the last night of the season, so chances are the Blazers won’t even know whether it’s worthwhile to tank the game or not).

One other interesting item to file away: The Lakers are no longer assured of hosting a potential Finals rematch against Orlando. L.A. still projects to beat them out, 59 wins to 58, but the door is definitely open for the Magic to claim the upper hand. The Magic and Lakers split the season series (1-1) and play in opposite conferences, so the tie-break is going to come down to one of the oddball items well down the tie-break list (I believe record against playoff teams). In the meantime, L.A. needs to take care of business because Orlando has five near-automatic wins left on its slate and its April 11 game at Cleveland may be against the Cavs’ scrubs.