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HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The Portland Trail Blazers are the hottest team outside of Oakland or San Antonio. The Blazers are 21-8 since Christmas and have won 13 of their last 15 games with the league’s fifth-ranked offense and seventh-ranked defense during that stretch.
The Blazers’ run has been impressive, and that they’re even in the mix for a playoff spot is a surprise to almost everyone around the league. They’re currently in seventh place in the Western Conference, three games in the loss column ahead of the ninth-place Jazz, against whom they hold the tiebreaker with three wins in their four head-to-head meetings.
But it’s fair to say that the Blazers have taken advantage of a soft schedule over the last five-plus weeks…
- Only six of the 15 opponents they’ve played are currently over .500.
- Only four of the 15 games were on the road.
- The stretch included only one back-to-back (in Chicago and Indiana this past weekend), but five of the Blazers’ 15 opponents were playing the second night of a back-to-back.
- Only four of the games were against top-10 defenses, but eight were against bottom-10 defenses.
With the run they’re on and with Utah having lost six of its last eight games, the Blazers’ playoff ticket appears pretty safe. But if the Blazers are going to make their third straight trip to the postseason, they’re going to have to navigate a much tougher schedule over the final six weeks of the season than they have over the last five.
When you take opponent strength, home/road, and back-to-backs into account, only one team — Oklahoma City — has a tougher remaining schedule than the Blazers, who will spend most of March on the road. The trip that started Saturday in Chicago continues this week, and not only are 10 of the Blazers’ next 13 games away from Moda Center, nine of the 13 are against teams with winning records and eight are against top-10 offenses.
Things get a little easier over the final three weeks of the season, when the Blazers will play seven of their final nine games at home and five of those nine against teams with losing records. If they’re still in playoff position on March 25, they’re in great shape.
Here’s a breakdown of the remaining schedules for all 15 teams in the Western Conference…
A few more Western Conference notes from the remaining schedule…
- The Warriors haven’t lost a regular season game at home in more than 13 months, and will play 17 of their final 24 games at Oracle Arena. No other team has more than 15 remaining home games.
- Nine of the Clippers‘ remaining 11 games against top-10 offenses are in a 12-game stretch starting Wednesday. Their schedule gets much easier after March 24, when only four of their final 11 games are against teams that currently have winning records (and one of those is against the Gasol-less Grizzlies).
- The Grizzlies are the only team that doesn’t have any more games against opponents that are playing the second night of a back-to-back. Every other team has at least two of those games remaining. Memphis has three more soft games this week, but their schedule gets much, much tougher starting next Monday. Seventeen of their final 20 games are against teams over .500 or on the road.
- The Spurs lead the league in defensive efficiency by a wide margin and have allowed 7.7 fewer points per 100 possessions than the league average, the fifth best mark of the last 39 years. But the San Antonio defense will be challenged over the next six weeks more than it has in any other stretch of the season. Only four of the Spurs’ final 23 games are against bottom-10 offenses, while 12 are against to-10 offenses. That includes six games against the teams that rank No. 1 (Golden State) and No. 2 (Oklahoma City) in offensive efficiency.
The bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff picture is even more crowded than it is in the West. Only four games separate the fourth-place Miami Heat from the 10-place Washington Wizards.
The Charlotte Hornets are in the middle of that seven-team pack with a record of 30-28. They’ve been one of the league’s five most improved teams despite injuries to Al Jefferson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, as well as what has been the league’s fifth toughest schedule (toughest amongst those East teams in spots 4-10).
Kidd-Gilchrist isn’t coming back and Jefferson has yet to make much of an impact upon returning from a 23-game absence, but the Hornets’ schedule is about to provide some relief. Charlotte has the league’s easiest remaining schedule, with 15 of their final 24 games against teams under .500 and eight of those 15 against the six teams who rank in the bottom 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
The Hornets need to start building a cushion right now, though. Eight of their next nine games are at home (where they’re 19-9) and the other is against the Philadelphia 76ers. Things start to get tougher on March 11, when they begin a stretch of eight games in 12 days. They’ll also play nine of their final 12 games away from Time Warner Cable Arena.
More Eastern Conference notes…
- The Celtics have the fewest remaining games (21) among teams in playoff contention, but do have a five-games-in-seven-days stretch starting on March 15. The good news is the last two opponents on that stretch (Philadelphia and Orlando) aren’t nearly as tough as the first three (Indiana, Oklahoma City and Toronto).
- The Cavs have the first three days of March off, but then play five games in seven days to start the rest of their schedule. They have two more five-games-in-seven-days stretches (March 13-19 and March 31 – April 6) after that.
- The Pistons have a league-low four remaining games against bottom-10 defenses. Three of those games are part of their longest homestand of the season, nine games between March 16 and April 1.
- The Pacers play 10 more games against teams over .500 and seven of those 10 come in an eight-game stretch from March 4-19. That stretch, though, includes four straight days off from March 8-11. Only three of their final 13 games are against winning teams.
- The Heat have a league-high 13 remaining games against bottom-10 offenses, including six straight to start March.
- The Raptors have a busy, 16-game March. They’re off on Monday and Tuesday this week, but only have two more stretches of two straight days off before the end of the season (March 21-22 and April 3-4). Their seven-game homestand to start March is an every-other-day affair.