NBA Playoffs: Can the OKC Thunder Catch the Mavs for the Third Spot out West

Sean MerrimanCorrespondent IMarch 30, 2011

NBA Playoffs: Can the OKC Thunder Catch the Mavs for the Third Spot out West

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    They don't call it the wild-wild West for nothing.

    With just about two weeks left in the NBA regular season, the playoff picture is starting to take form in the Western Conference.

    The San Antonio Spurs looks like they will secure the top seed in the West, but how the rest of the conference is going to shake out after that is really anyone's guess.

    Will the Oklahoma City Thunder be able to catch the Mavericks for that third spot and secure home-court advantage? Will the Grizzlies have what it takes to hold onto that No. 8 playoff sport, despite finishing the season without Rudy Gay?

    Let's break down the West and figure out where teams are going to be seeded come playoff time.

    Let's get it started.

8. New Orleans Hornets

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    Current Record: 42-32 (7th seed in West)

    Number of Games Remaining: Eight

    Biggest Challenge Ahead: April 13 @ Dallas Mavericks

    Outlook: The Hornets have been a pretty inconsistent group throughout this NBA season. They were a team of runs that happened to go on a few more good runs than bad ones, which is why they currently sit at No. 7 in the West.

    But for a team that has been so inconsistent, it certainly doesn't help that they just lost their most consistent player, forward David West, for the rest of the season with an injury.

    Chris Paul is one of the elite players in the NBA, but his scoring has been down this year, and he can't do it all alone without his go-to guy in West. The Hornets will still make the playoffs because they have a little cushion, but look for the Grizzlies to top them for that No. 7 seed.

    Six of the remaining eight games on the Hornets' schedule are against teams that are .500 or better right now.

7. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Current Record: 41-33 (8th seed in West)

    Number of Games Remaining: Eight

    Biggest Challenge Ahead: April 12 @ Portland Trailblazers

    Outlook: The Grizzlies are in a similar position as the Hornets in the sense that they are also limping into the playoffs without one of the best players.

    Forward Rudy Gay will be out for the remainder of the season, which takes away this team's top perimeter scorer. But they still do have Zach Randolph, who has been nothing short of outstanding this season for this team.

    The good news for Memphis is that they close out the regular season with a pretty easy schedule. Only three of their remaining eight games are against teams with winning records.

    Look for the Grizzlies to overtake New Orleans by one game and grab onto that No. 7 seed heading into the postseason.

6. Denver Nuggets

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    Current Record: 44-29 (5th seed in West)

    Number of Games Remaining: Nine

    Biggest Challenge Ahead: April 3 @ LA Lakers

    Outlook: Who would have known that trading away Carmelo Anthony would have been the best thing that happened to the Nuggets this season?

    George Carl's team has been on fire since dealing away Anthony, and are currently riding a three-game winning streak. The Nuggets have won seven of their last 10 games and are doing it with a cast of good players, instead of relying on one superstar.

    Denver has nine games remaining on it's schedule and four of them are against playoff teams. It's going to be a very close race between the Nuggets and Blazers to see who can secure that No. 5 seed. Right now, due to strength of schedule, let's give the slight edge to Portland and slate the Nuggets here at the No. 6 seed.

5. Portland Trailblazers

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    Current Record: 43-31 (6th seed in West)

    Number of Games Remaining: Eight

    Biggest Challenge Ahead April 8 vs. LA Lakers

    Outlook: Ever since making the deal for Gerald Wallace, the Blazers look like a completely new team- one that is playing with a purpose.

    Brandon Roy has been plagued with injuries all season and this team needed to bring in a scorer/rebounder who could compliment LaMarcus Aldridge. In comes Gerald Wallace, and all he has done is help Portland win 10 of their last 14 games, including victories over Miami, Dallas and twice over San Antonio.

    This is a team that is playing great basketball right now down the stretch and could be a very dangerous group come playoff time. Look for Portland to sneak up on Denver and snag that No. 5 seed out West. This isn't a group that I would want to see in the postseason.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Current Record: 49-24 (4th seed in West)

    Number of Games Remaining: Nine

    Biggest Challenge Ahead: April 10 @ LA Lakers

    Outlook: Oklahoma City has been playing some great basketball as of late, which is what you want to see from a team come playoff time. The addition of Kendrick Perkins has definitely helped this group and given them a much-needed inside presence.

    With that said, the Thunder still trail the Mavs by three full games for that No. 3 spot, and with the season winding down fast, it looks like Scott Brook's club will likely role into the postseason holding onto that No. 4 seed.

    It wouldn't be surprising to see Kevin Durant and the guys close out the regular season winning six or seven of their final nine games. But unfortunately, the same can be said for Dallas.

3. Dallas Mavericks

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    Current Record: 52-21 (3rd seed in West)

    Number of Games Remaining: Nine

    Biggest Challenge Ahead: March 31 @ LA Lakers

    Outlook: Just when you thought that the Mavericks were going to run out of gas, this team has ran off four wins in a row and are doing everything in their power to hold onto that No. 3 seed.

    Dirk Nowitzki has been playing great basketball as of late, and it looks more and more every day like adding Tyson Chandler was the best move this organization has made in the past decade. A lack of a true big-man was always this teams' problem heading into postseason play, but now it looks like the Mavs have found their man in Chandler.

    Dallas has nine remaining games, five of which are against teams with winning records. Look for this group to close out the year winning at least five of those final nine games and wrapping up that No. 3 seed. If that's the case, that should be one heck of a first-round match-up when Dallas takes on either Denver or Portland.

2. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Current Record: 53-20 (2nd seed in West)

    Number of Games Remaining: Nine

    Biggest Challenge Ahead: April 12 vs. San Antonio

    Outlook: Playoff time is fast approaching, and that means that Kobe Bryant has his game face on and is ready to go.

    There isn't a team in all of basketball that is hotter than the LA Lakers right now. Kobe and the boys have ran off seven straight wins and are 15-1 in their past 16 games. Despite a slow start, you had to believe that this team was going to come around at the end of the year, and that is exactly what they are doing right now.

    Kobe has been great, Pau Gasol has been a dominant force inside and Andrew Bynum is playing the best basketball of his life right now. The Lakers moved past the Mavs for the No. 2 spot and look to be on cruise control heading into the playoffs.

    There isn't quite enough games left for the Lakers to likely pass up the Spurs and grab that No. 1 seed. But, with the way this team has been playing as of late, you certainly can't put it out of the question.

1. San Antonio Spurs

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    Current Record: 57-17 (1st seed in West)

    Number of Games Remaining: Eight

    Biggest Challenge Ahead: March 31 vs. Boston

    Outlook: The Spurs have been the best team in the West throughout the entire year and all signs point to it staying that way entering the playoffs.

    This team knows how important home-court advantage is throughout the postseason, and with eight games remaining left on the schedule, it would be near impossible to see this veteran group let that slip away from under their wings.

    Being a veteran group, it is important that this team stay injury free. The other night, they played without Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. They need those guys healthy in order to make a run this postseason at another NBA Championship.

    With the way the Spurs have been playing all season long, it would be difficult to bet against this group come playoff time.