There are scenarios and there are realistic scenarios. Right now the realistic scenario is that there are four teams competing for the final three playoff spots in the Western Conference, including the Dallas Mavericks.
The Los Angeles Clippers and the Memphis Grizzles are not locked in at Nos. 4 and 5, respectively, but their leads are comfortable enough that trying to catch them would seem unrealistic. So the Portland Trail Blazers, the Houston Rockets, the Dallas Mavericks and the Utah Jazz are the teams that remain to flesh out the rest of the Western Conference playoff picture.
With roughly 12 games, or three weeks left, the Mavericks are at No. 8, but just a game out of sixth place, which right now is the difference between playing Golden State or Oklahoma City in the first round.
Entering this week, this is how the race for the final five seeds stands.
4. Los Angeles Clippers (43-26 as of Sunday night, 4 1/2 games behind Oklahoma City; 3 1/2 games ahead of Memphis)
Last week: lost to San Antonio, 108-87; def. Houston, 122-106; lost to Memphis, 113-102; lost to New Orleans, 109-105.
This week: at Golden State (Wednesday), vs. Portland (Thursday), vs. Denver (Sunday).
Games remaining: 13.
Status: The Clippers' hopes of moving into the Top 3 are on life support now after a 1-3 week. But they managed to maintain their edge on Memphis, which would buy them one more home game in a seven-game playoff series. Blake Griffin's return has been slid back to April. These Clippers, losers of six of their last nine, look like they need him now.
What to expect this week: It doesn't get any easier with games against the Warriors and Trail Blazers. The Warriors are playing for history. The Trail Blazers are playing for seeding. The Nuggets, as the Mavericks can attest, are pesky. No easy wins this week, but at least two games are at home.
5. Memphis Grizzlies (40-30 as of Sunday night, 3 1/2 games behind the Los Angeles Clippers; 4 1/2 games ahead of Portland)
Last week: lost to Houston, 130-81; lost to Minnesota, 114-108; lost to Milwaukee, 96-86; def. Los Angeles Clippers, 113-102.
This week: at Phoenix (Monday), at Los Angeles Lakers (Tuesday), at San Antonio (Friday).
Games remaining: 12
Status: The good news is that Memphis beat the Clippers this past week. The bad news is the Grizzlies lost their other three games, negating whatever impact that win over the Clips might have had. The Grizzlies are comfortably set at No. 5.
What to expect this week: Wins over Phoenix and the Lakers are paramount for the Grizzlies to hold serve before they tangle with the Spurs, the first of back-to-back games against Tim Duncan and company.
6. Portland Trail Blazers (36-35 as of Sunday night, 4 1/2 behind Memphis; 1/2 games ahead of Houston and Dallas)
Last week: lost to Oklahoma City, 128-94; lost to San Antonio, 118-110; def. New Orleans, 117-112; lost to Dallas, 132-120 (OT).
This week: vs. Dallas (Wednesday), at Los Angeles Clippers (Thursday), vs. Philadelphia (Saturday).
Games remaining: 11
Status: A tough week for the Trail Blazers, punctuated by the loss to Dallas on Sunday. It's a tiebreaker-sensitive loss, as the Mavs now get the nod in a head-to-head tiebreaker. The Blazers have definitely slowed down a bit since their hot February and early March. It looks unlikely they'll catch Memphis for the No. 5 spot. Movement would have to happen this week for Portland to have any hope.
What to expect this week: The Blazers get another shot at the Mavs before traveling to face the Clippers on the back end of a back-to-back. Portland shouldn’t sleep on the 76ers either, as just a half-game separates them from Houston and Dallas.
7. Houston Rockets (35-35 as of Sunday night, 1/2 games behind Portland and tied with Dallas — Rockets get No. 7 seed due to tiebreaker)
Last week: def. Memphis, 130-81; lost to Los Angeles Clippers, 122-106; def. Minnesota, 116-111; lost to Atlanta, 109-97.
This week: at Oklahoma City (Tuesday), vs. Utah (Wednesday), vs. Toronto (Friday), at Indiana (Sunday).
Games remaining: 12
Status: A 2-2 week was more than enough to keep the Rockets in the playoff fray. The Memphis game was the game I expected them to win of the three against the contenders. Beating Minnesota was key, though. The Rockets couldn't afford to slip against the young Timberwolves.
What to expect this week: This week is a big test for the Rockets — three playoff teams and one wannabe (Utah) that isn't out of the race. It's not make-or-break, but a bad week puts the Rockets in a position where it becomes that way in the final stretch.
8. Dallas Mavericks (35-35 as of Sunday night, tied with Houston; one game ahead of Utah)
Last week: def. Charlotte, 107-96; lost to Cleveland, 99-98; lost to Golden State, 130-112; def. Portland, 132-120 (OT).
This week: at Portland (Wednesday), at Golden State (Friday), at Sacramento (Sunday).
Games remaining: 12
Status: Well, it ended up being a .500 week for the Mavs, and that win over Portland was a nice touch. (See Fish's column on Dirk's "One For The Aged'' Performance here.) But the Mavs should have stolen one in Cleveland, a win that would put them in sixth place for now.
What to expect this week: Expect the Mavs to lose in Golden State. Dallas has to beat Sacramento on the road. The swing game is Portland, especially given how tight the final three spots are right now.
Outside Looking In
9. Utah Jazz (34-36 as of Sunday night, one game behind Dallas, five games ahead of Denver)
Last week: def. Cleveland, 94-85; def. Phoenix, 103-69; lost to Chicago, 92-85; def. Milwaukee, 94-85.
This week: at Houston (Wednesday), at Oklahoma City (Thursday), at Minnesota (Saturday).
Games remaining: 12.
Status: The Jazz are hanging tough in this, and their leader, Gordon Hayward, isn't letting a bout of planter fasciitis keep him out of the lineup.
What to expect this week: The Jazz are looking to hang in this race and they'll need to string together some winning weeks to do it. The goal? Hang in there right behind the Mavs until they get a crack at them April 11 in Dallas. If this race keeps holding the way it is, that game could decide the final seed.