Assessing the West, Warriors' most pivotal games in final stretch

Assessing the West, Warriors' most pivotal games in final stretch originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

The first in a succession of huge-implication games for the Warriors comes Thursday night, when the Los Angeles Lakers visit Chase Center. The teams are 1.5 games apart in the standings, and tiebreakers always matter.

The Warriors lost to LA in double-overtime on Jan. 27 at Chase. A second loss would practically give the head-to-head tiebreaker to the Lakers. Moreover, with LeBron James declared out, it would be a devastating defeat.

Golden State has seven games that loom as pivotal. They’re all against teams also competing for the automatic playoff berth that comes with being among the top six within the conference.

With the Warriors sixth among the six teams in the fight, the road will be rough.

With Golden State’s pivotal games in boldface, here are the Western Conference Power Rankings – in three tiers – coming out of the All-Star break:


These four teams own the top four seeds. There might be some slight rearranging, but it will take a serious plummet for any to drop lower than No. 4.

1) Minnesota Timberwolves (39-16): The offense is streaky, but they’re at the top because their defense (108.5 rating since Jan. 1) is the best in the NBA. They won twice at Chase to win the season series, with the final matchup on March 24 in Minny.

2) Los Angeles Clippers (36-17): Great coach, deep roster and the league’s best offense (120.9 rating) since Jan. 1. If Kawhi Leonard and Paul George stay healthy, don’t be surprised if they finish as the No. 2 seed. They won the season series 3-1.

3) Denver Nuggets (36-19): Don’t see them getting the top seed and doubt they’re concerned. They’re 21-5 in Denver, but defending champs don’t sweat location. They’re 3-0 against the Warriors to win the season series. The finale is Sunday.

4) Oklahoma City Thunder (37-17): They’re No. 2 in the West out of the break, but young teams tend to show their youth as the stakes begin to rise. They’re top 10 on both ends, but it’s hard to believe they’ll maintain a 57-win pace. Won the season series, 3-1.


This is where the brawling begins. Six teams, all but assured of playing beyond the regular season – and all trying to avoid being among the four that land in the dreaded NBA play-in tournament.

5) New Orleans Pelicans (33-22): With three players capable of getting 30 on any given night, they’re a load when healthy. They’re healthy and hot, winning seven of eight. After splitting the first two games, the winner of the final meeting, April 12 at Chase, gets the tiebreaker.

6) Phoenix Suns (33-22): They’re scary because their Big Three can bring seriously savage offense. But something keeps them out of the top four and that’s not likely to change, as Bradley Beal’s health is an ongoing issue. Won the season series, 3-1.

7) Dallas Mavericks (32-23): They got better at the trade deadline, and Kyrie Irving is back. They’re built to make a run at a top-six seed. They won the first game with Golden State. The remaining three – March 13 in Dallas, April 2 at Chase, April 5 in Dallas – are massive for both teams.

8) Sacramento Kings (31-23): The Kings, perhaps straining under expectations, don’t have that “new to the party” look of last season, when they earned a No. 3 seed. The teams split their four games, and Sacramento has an edge in the conference-record tiebreaker.

9) Warriors (27-26): They closed last season by winning 15 of their last 23 games, barely avoiding the play-in tournament. They’ll probably need to do better than that over the final 29 games to reach the top six this time around.

10) Lakers (30-26): The first Steph vs. LeBron battle went to LeBron, who won’t be a factor on Thursday. That’s the first of three games that both teams desperately want. The other two are March 5 and April 9 – both in LA.


These teams either are rebuilding or have a deeply compromised roster. They’re destined to be spoilers, and that’s what nourishes them.

11) Houston Rockets (24-30): They bring fight every night because the coach, Ime Udoka, demands it. But they’re a young team making young-team errors. The Warriors won the first two games and should complete the sweep on April 4 in Houston.

12) Utah Jazz (26-30): Playing the long game, they acquired vets Otto Porter Jr. and Kevin Knox at the NBA trade deadline only to dump both. They still make opponents sweat. The Warriors beat them last week but face them on the last two Sundays of the regular season.

13) Memphis Grizzlies (20-36): They have plenty of heart – beating Houston last week with all five starters missing. But injuries have rendered this squad unrecognizable. They split the first two games, with the finale on March 20 at Chase.

14) Portland Trail Blazers (15-39): There is talent, but no team is more committed to a rebuild. The Warriors won the first three matchups and will be looking for a sweep in the final week of the regular season.

15) San Antonio Spurs (11-44): Even with Victor Wembanyama, they’re worse than imagined. The Warriors won the first matchup, with three more to come. The season series won’t matter, but anything less than a sweep will wound the Warriors.

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