I've felt like the Utah Jazz are going to make the playoffs this year. I've double and triple downed on this fact online, on social media, in blog posts, and on radio (and streaming internet audio). It's not just wishful thinking either. Sure, there are challenges, like when the Jazz look dead in the water some nights, but the main point I have is the finishing schedule. The Jazz are playing a lot of tough teams now -- but they finish the season playing the easy teams. And most importantly, they play more easy teams to finish the season than their opponents do. And the Jazz, sitting at 9th in the West, are chasing the Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets, and the Utah Jazz. While it is unlikely for our guys to leapfrog three teams it is much more likely that the Jazz pass one of them in the standings.
And they only need to pass one of them in the standings.
We often default to looking at the chronological schedule to try an figure out wins and losses. With 15 games left there's still a lot of data to look at. The chronological schedule cannot be discounted, after all, it factors into play the cumulative fatigue of back-to-backs, three in fours, and five in seven games. Most of these teams have a pretty even fatigue schedule, but Portland stands out.
To Portland's credit, the teams they face when they are most tired were the games they were likely to lose anyway. The Jazz do look like they have the easiest finishing schedule. When you break it down outside of chronological order but into quality order you really begin to see.
- The Blazers are in the driver's seat with the fewest games left to play, and the best current record. They do play the Top Four teams in the West once each, but only once each. They also play Philly once to finish this season, which none of these other teams have to deal with. There are two road trips left, a three gamer in San Antonio, New Orleans, and Dallas, and then another in the same time-zone against Golden State and Sacramento. That's not bad. What is bad, and if you want to use the schedule against them, it's that they do have a four games in five nights sequence coming up that overlaps directly with a three games in four nights sequence: vs. Boston, a night off, vs. Miami, @ Golden State, a night off, @ Sacramento, vs. Oklahoma City. That's five games in seven nights with two back-to-back sets in there for good measure. I count these things in terms of overlapping cumulative fatigue, but I still think that this team is going to win the games they were supposed to in that sequence, Boston, and Sacramento, with losses to Golden State and OKC. Only the Miami game is in the balance there, and it's the second game of five. The only other fun thing about their remaining games is a home and home against Dallas. With how Dallas is playing I don't expect Portland to lose both.
- The Rockets are the only team of these four who avoids the insta-death group that has a winning percentage of 80+%, but the vast majority of their schedule is packed with teams that are between 50% and 79%, including five road games, and five games against Cleveland, Toronto, Oklahoma City, and the Los Angeles Clippers. The saving grace, if there is one for Houston's remaining schedule, is that they play the most remaining games against Eastern Conference foes (5) than everyone else (POR 3, DAL 3, UTA 2). They do have two games of massive importance, at home against the Jazz (the night after playing against OKC in their gym), and at the Mavericks (the night before playing Phoenix). Houston is in control of their destiny, and their last five games are @DAL, vs PHX, vs LAL, @ MIN, and vs SAC. But getting to that finishing schedule means trucking through the gauntlet that is the next three weeks.
- Man. Mavericks fans are besides themselves, and looking at how they are playing and how this season could end for them, I understand. First, the good news. They only play the insta-death group three times, and one of those games, hosting San Antonio, is the last game of the regular season. The Spurs will be resting guys and this will be a 100% totally winnable game. The bad news is that they face the least number of below 40% teams (5) compared to their competitors (POR 6, HOU 6, UTA 7). It's also a schedule that features the fewest back to back games (3) compared to the larger group (POR 4, HOU 4, UTA 3). (Okay, they are tied with Utah.) The main problem for Dallas is that their easiest games (through opp. win %) are games where three of those five are both the second night of a back to back, and the third game in four nights. Their easy games will be hard. At least three of those teams may not be trying to win though, so it could even out. The Middle six games will determine their fortunes, vs. MEM, @ POR, vs. POR, vs. HOU, @ DET, and vs. UTA.
- The Jazz have four insta-death games but may not have to win any of them if they take care of the scrubs. The Jazz play 8 games against teams under 40%. Specifically, a home and home against Minnesota, Phoenix, and the Los Angeles Lakers. Those are six very winnable games, even if one of them is Kobe Bryant's last game of his career. (If he's healthy.) Utah needs to win those games and take care of business against Houston and Dallas. The remaining games, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Denver are all on the road. And they are all winnable. They really are. Chicago is playing well, and Milwaukee is much better than their record. But it's not like they are invincible.
Right now I feel like the Blazers will win 9 of their final 14 games and finish 44-38. The Rockets will win 8 of their last 15, and finish 42-20. I have the Mavericks finishing with just 7 of their last 15 as victories, while the Jazz will win 9 of their last 15. Both will finish with a 41-41 record by my estimation today, with Utah winning the tie-break due to winning the season series -- because I have them winning that game on April 11th.
QED. (Quin Snyder erat Derrick Favoristrandum)