Looking over their shoulders at the Blazers
Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs can't play back-to-back games any more. Without a night off between contests, his body just can't take the pounding. And so given that they were in just such a situation against the Sac'to Kings tonight and the Oakland Whatevers tomorrow night, the Spurs decided to rest Duncan and let him play tomorrow. The Spurs survived tonight, just barely, and now they are tied with the Blazers for fourth place in the Western Conference and the important home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, which start next weekend.
The San Antonio strategy -- rest TD the first night, let him loose the second -- is a wise one. And it shows how carefully the Spurs are approaching their potential matchup with Portland, who whupped them pretty good just last week.
Both Portland and San Antonio have two games left, one tomorrow night and one Wednesday. The Blazers are at home tomorrow against the humble Oklahoma City Thunder, and at home Wednesday night against the scary Denver Nuggets; the Spurs are on the road in Oakland tomorrow and at home against N'Awlins, a playoff team, on Wednesday.
An alert reader has pointed out a serious quirk in the league's playoff seeding rules that could lead to much grinding of teeth among the Blazer faithful. What if Portland, Houston, and San Antonio, all with identical records at the moment, finish the season in a dead heat in the standings (that is, they each win the same number out of their remaining two games)?
At first glance, you would think that the Blazers would be seeded higher than the Spurs. The first tiebreaker is the head-to-head record. Portland holds the series advantage against San Antonio 3 to 1. That being the case, the Blazers should get the nod over the Spurs if the two of them end up tied. Houston has the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Blazers, and so as between the Rockets and the Blazers, the Rockets should get a higher seed.
But the plot thickens slightly when one realizes that head to head, the Spurs and the Rockets split their series 2-to-2. The next tiebreaker is division record, where at the moment the Spurs have a half-game lead over the Rockets.
So based on the first two tiebreakers, at this writing, Houston is supposed to be ahead of Portland, Portland is supposed to be ahead of San Antonio, and San Antonio is supposed to be ahead of Houston. Those of you still with me can see that those are mutually exclusive possibilities. And right now the official league page says that in case of a tie, if the playoffs were held today, the Blazers would wind up the no. 5 seed. Ick.
But wait! If Houston and San Antonio both win their last two games, they would be in a dead heat all the way through the first three tiebreakers: head-to-head (2-2), division record (10-6), and conference record (36-16). The fourth tiebreaker between the Spurs and the Rockets would be their records against Western Conference playoff teams. Houston has got the better of that one, I believe. I have them at 15-12 if they win out, whereas the Spurs would be 12-13. That would put Houston ahead of San Antonio, and as noted earlier, the Blazers would be ahead of San Antonio, too, based on head-to-head.
Conclusion: If the three teams each win both their remaining games, the Blazers will likely play the Spurs in the first round and definitely have the home-court advantage. Sometimes the home-court business is just a lot of hype, but given the Blazers' dominance at the Rose Garden this year, it's a fairly serious thing this time around. If the Blazers can win both of their remaining games, by my reckoning they've got that advantage sewed up. And the Spurs know they can't afford to lose this week.