This is something I haven’t experienced in my eight years on the Timberwolves beat: legitimate playoff seeding tiebreaker talk in March.
If you frequent this space, you realize that I’ve been harping on tiebreakers since December. When a team’s expectation is playoffs, then every game matters. The saying that “the NBA doesn’t matter until Christmas” is false when you’re focusing on a team with postseason aspirations.
Tracking division wins of a rebuilding team makes little sense but makes perfect sense with a team ready to make the leap.
The NBA determines tiebreakers in the following ways.
First is the head-to-head matchup. This is pretty simple. The team that has the better record in the season series gets the higher seed. Should they split the season series, then it would go to the team with the better division record. In the unlikely event that doesn’t resolve a tie, the tiebreaker goes to whoever has the better record in-conference.
This can go on all the way down to who has the most net points on the season but for our purposes, we won’t need to go that far. We’ll just stick to head-to-head and best division record.
Oklahoma City, New Orleans, San Antonio and Los Angeles are the tiebreakers they already own. But the tiebreakers against Utah, Denver, and Portland are still up for grabs. We’ll focus mostly on those.
The Timberwolves have five games against the Northwest Division remaining: Two against Portland and Utah and one more versus Denver. They’re done with New Orleans and Oklahoma City but have one game remaining against the Clippers.
As Matt Moore of Action Sports pointed out to me, beating the Blazers on Thursday and one more loss by the Nuggets and Blazers to a division team gives the Wolves tiebreakers over the Thunder, Jazz, Nuggets, and Blazers. That’s because if the Blazers and Nuggets wind up splitting the season series with the Wolves, the Wolves would have clinched the best division record.
Denver: The Nuggets have four games remaining against division opponents. They lead the season series 2-1 against the Thunder and Blazers with one to play with both teams and split the season series with the Jazz. Despite being down 2-2 to the Wolves, they can still even that series with two late-season games remaining.
New Orleans and Utah are the tiebreakers they own. The Jazz and Nuggets split the season series but the Nuggets get the tiebreaker based on Division record. It’s the same way the Spurs get the tiebreaker over them. The Clippers are the other team to have clinched a tiebreaker over the Nuggets.
Los Angeles (C): This team cannot be killed and will not die. After losing J.J. Redick, Chris Paul, and Blake Griffin, the Clippers are still alive. The Clippers still have the Portland (1-1) and Utah (1-2) tiebreakers undecided with one game left against each.
Other than that, they own nothing. They’ve lost or clinched losing season series records against San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Minnesota. Beating the Blazers and Jazz are musts at this point. They can pass the Jazz in the event of a tie in the season series because they have the better division record. They’ll have to do it in Utah but the Clippers are above .500 on the road this season.
Amazingly, the Clippers are 11-3 in the same division with one game remaining against the Pacific. However, they have 10 games left against the other remaining playoff contenders.
New Orleans: With a whopping eight games against the Southwest remaining and Anthony Davis playing like a monster, the Pelicans are still alive. This includes three games against the Spurs. They have tiebreakers against Portland, Utah, and Los Angeles that are still undecided.
The only tiebreakers they’ve lost are with Denver and Minnesota. With their current momentum, the Pelicans can continue to make their push. However, we’ll know more about where they stand in a couple of weeks.
Oklahoma City: It’s taken awhile but the Thunder may have put it together. At 35-27, they currently sit in seventh in the West with three division games left. They own tiebreakers against L.A. and Utah and the only season series they’ve lost so far is to Minnesota.
They have a 2-1 season series lead against the Nuggets. They’ll also play the Spurs twice more and have split the series at one so far. The two games against the Blazers will be pivotal. Should they lose one, that would likely limit the highest seed they could attain.
Portland: Portland currently has two games remaining against the Clippers (1-1), one game left against the Pelicans (1-2), and five games remaining against divisional opponents. That’s eight games that could transform the Western Conference playoff picture.
Unfortunately, the Blazers trail the season series with Utah (1-2) and Denver (1-2). However, they hold a 2-0 edge on the Thunder with a game at home and in Oklahoma City remaining. You figure that they get one of those to clinch the head-to-head tiebreaker but these teams haven’t met since January 9, before the Thunder started playing better.
The Blazers have a lot of games with playoff implications remaining but a slip up here and there on the wrong night could put them behind the eight ball.
San Antonio: Since the Spurs trail the Wolves by 0.5 games and the standings are so tight, I thought I’d mention them quickly. The Spurs have three games left against the Pelicans (0-1), two games remaining against the Thunder (1-1), and Blazers.
Otherwise, everything has been decided for them. They’ve lost the tiebreakers with the Jazz and Timberwolves. They split the season series with the Nuggets and would have that tiebreaker by virtue of division record. Despite having one game left with the Clippers, they only play them three times this season and have won two.
With six games left against their division, they could easily stand their ground, especially if they get Kawhi Leonard back this month.
Utah: After splitting the season series with Denver and holding the season series edge against Portland, the Jazz are in a good spot. They must still avoid a tie with the Thunder if they can help it since they own the tiebreaker over them. Having three games left against the Northwest doesn’t give them as much wiggle room but they’ve established decent position already (aside from being 10th in the conference).
It’s important to note they have one game remaining against both New Orleans and Los Angeles. They hold a 2-1 season series lead against both and a sweep would go along way to solidifying their position. The only undecided tiebreaker they cannot clinch outright is with the Wolves, their opponent on Friday.
We’ve already seen how the Clippers have kept their hopes alive by beating up on their division. Granted, that’s easy to do with Sacramento, Los Angeles (L), and Phoenix in your division. But doing well against your division can be the difference between making the playoffs or not or getting the best first-round matchup.
Here are the best division records among the playoff contenders.
You can see what an advantage the Wolves have, even without Jimmy Butler, and what disadvantage Utah and Oklahoma City are at because of their division record. Splitting season series won’t help those teams because they haven’t taken care of business against their own division.
This is big for the Wolves. The Nuggets have four division games remaining and Blazers will have five left. That means beating the Blazers on Thursday would essentially give the Wolves that tiebreaker. From there, one more loss within the division for Denver gives the Wolves the penultimate tiebreaker over the Northwest division.
All records current as of Wednesday, February 28 at 3:30 p.m. CST.