The Western Conference playoff is packed tighter than a takeout container full of Chinese food (or whatever analogy you prefer). The Nos. 3-10 seeds are separated by just 4.5 games in the standings, and if we exclude No. 3 Portland (which has the tiniest bit of separation as well as 2-3 fewer games played than most other contenders) the 4-10 seeds are separated by just two games in the loss column.
A couple of teams that win roughly 45 games are going to be left out of the postseason, which is a high hurdle to climb for a Timberwolves squad that is right in the middle of that pack and bidding to reach the postseason for the first time since 2003-04.
Their task became more daunting a few weeks back when Jimmy Butler was sidelined with a knee injury, and a three-game losing streak soon thereafter sent some Wolves fans into full-blown panic.
Two important wins over Golden State and Washington, though, have restored some order and faith. And I’m here to supply some more good news that could be a factor in the Wolves not only locking down a playoff spot but also still helping them in a bid for home court advantage (as a top-four seed) in the first round.
*First, their remaining schedule is a lot easier than that of almost every other team with which they are battling.
Right now you might be thinking: Wait, aren’t their next two games at San Antonio and home against Houston, back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday? They are! But after that, things get much, much nicer.
If we take the long view, six of the Wolves’ final 10 games are against teams that are definitely lottery-bound, and five of their last eight are at home. It adds up to a strength of schedule that is slightly easier than average in their final 13 games, according to Basketball Reference.
Utah has a similar schedule in terms of relative ease. But every other team in the mix — Portland, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, New Orleans, Denver and the Clippers — has a much tougher than average remaining schedule. Oklahoma City has the toughest of the bunch. The Thunder has won four consecutive games, but their next 11 games are against playoff contenders with winning records — including games against Toronto, Boston, Golden State and Houston, the four teams with the best records in the NBA.
*That comparatively easier schedule is important as the Wolves try to separate themselves and at least reach the playoffs. And if things remain tight at the top of that 3-10 cluster, the Wolves’ tiebreaker edges could come into play.
The tiebreaker rundown is a bit confusing, but the factors are listed here. Basically, the Wolves are in good shape in many cases.
The Wolves already hold the season tiebreaker edge over Oklahoma City, New Orleans and the Clippers (by virtue of winning those season series). The Wolves are 2-0 against Denver with two games left against the Nuggets, so at least a split of those games would give them that tiebreaker as well. Saturday’s game against the Spurs — the teams are tied 1-1 this year — will determine that tiebreaker, while an April 1 game against Utah (Wolves lead series 2-1) could give Minnesota that edge as well. If conference record ends up being the tiebreaker used, the Wolves — currently 29-13 against the West — will hold that edge over every team they are battling. The Wolves also have a better division record than anyone in their division. Their three remaining games against Denver and Utah (both division foes) will be important in retaining that edge.
Portland has the inside track on the No. 3 seed. But the Wolves, playing a comparatively easier schedule down the stretch and potentially holding a tiebreaker edge over every other team they are battling in the conference, could slide into that No. 4 spot and have home court in the first round.
In fact, that’s exactly how the Basketball Reference playoff probability report has things shaking out as of now.