It looks like San Antonio.
Things were going so well for the Warriors early Friday night. The Clippers won, increasing their slim chances of overtaking Denver and Memphis for the 3-seed. The Nuggets lost an overtime game in Dallas, too, and though Memphis scraped by with a hard-fought win it was at the hands of Houston, Golden State’s charging nemesis for the 6-seed and avoiding the Oklahoma City or San Antonio in the first round.
The night was unfolding exactly the way we wanted, with possibilities of facing the Clippers and staying a leg up on the Rockets increased by some fortuitous bounce. And down in Los Angeles, Steph Curry poured in 22 points in the game’s first 12 minutes and had the desperate Lakers on the ropes. Three quarters, a torn achilles tendon, 25 more effortless Curry points and a handful of questionable calls from the officials later, it was all for naught. The Lakers left Staples Center victorious, the Warriors had lost two-straight and remained just a half game ahead of the Rockets in the conference standings.
By then it was easy to see this coming – Golden State had played one more game than Houston up to that point, and the Rockets hosted lowly Sacramento on Sunday. They won, of course, matching the Warriors 45-35 record but inching ahead of them in postseason seeding by virtue of sweeping Golden State in the season series.
Both teams have two games remaining, tonight and on Wednesday. Houston plays at dreadful Phoenix this evening and in Los Angeles against the Lakers two days from now, while Golden State hosts San Antonio tonight and ends the regular season at Portland. And remember, a push is a loss for the Warriors – the Rockets own the tiebreaker.
The Warriors have the tougher road left on the surface; the Spurs are elite and Portland can be a tough place to play. But it’s mid-April now, and teams are shutting down stars to avoid meaningless injury with their coming fates basically sealed, and utilizing lineups and fringe players they wouldn’t dare otherwise. After yesterday’s Lakers win over the Spurs, that’s a factor that can’t be overlooked in the battle for the West’s 6-seed.
Winners of four consecutive games, the Lakers’ once-slim playoff chances are never better. With a win of their own on Wednesday or Utah loss in its final two regular season games, they’re in. After weeks of consternation, that’s all it takes – amazing what winning does. The Jazz are at Minnesota tonight and at Memphis two nights from now; given the Timberwolves’ stronger play of late, it’s possible LA’s fate will be sealed tonight. There’s a chance the Rockets face a Lakers team resting its beat up core on Wednesday.
San Antonio, the league’s trendsetter in general but when it comes to resting players especially, is in a similar situation. An Oklahoma City win or Spurs loss in either team’s last two games and the former’s the 1-seed; the Thunder hold the tiebreaker. It wouldn’t shock at all, then, if Gregg Popovich played without his full arsenal tonight, knowing full-well the 1-seed odds are stacked against he and his team.
If nothing else know this – the Rockets need to lose and the Warriors need to win. If Popovich opts the way some think he will, it’s very likely both teams go into Wednesday 46-35. In that case, only a Golden State victory in Portland and a Houston loss to the Lakers would win the Warriors the 6-seed. And it’s possible Los Angeles will have nothing to play for.
Regardless, the odds are stacked against the Warriors. Barring a small surprise, Golden State will see the Spurs again in San Antonio this weekend. But by then, Popovich and company will have something to truly play for.
Follow Jack Winter on Twitter.