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NBA playoff explainer: How the Wolves can win the West

The Timberwolves clinched a playoff spot for the third-consecutive season on Monday night, but for the first time in that span they will not have to emerge from the play-in tournament to reach the actual playoffs.

Last season the Wolves lost their first play-in game to the Lakers, then defeated Oklahoma City to secure the No. 8 seed before losing to top-seeded Denver in the first round.

This year the Wolves are guaranteed to finish no worse than sixth in the Western Conference, but there is now a larger goal in front of them: winning the West. That is currently a three-team race between the Wolves, Denver and Oklahoma City.

With the advent of the play-in tournament, 11 teams in the Western Conference are still alive to reach the playoffs. The top six get automatic entry. Teams 7-10 enter the play-in tournament with two teams emerging as the No. 7 and No. 8 seed.

The regular season ends April 14. The play-in tournament runs from April 16-19, and the Wolves would have their first playoff game either April 20 or April 21.

Here's where things stand and how seeding might shake out for the Wolves:

Western Conference standings

The race for No. 1

Denver: 53-23

Timberwolves: 52-23 (½ game back)

Oklahoma City: 52-23 (½ game back)

Rest of the pack

Los Angeles Clippers: 47-28 (5½ games back)

Dallas: 45-30 (7½ games back)

New Orleans: 45-30 (7½ games back)

Current play-in teams

Phoenix: 44-31 (8½ games back)

Sacramento: 44-31 (8½ games back)

Los Angeles Lakers: 43-33 (10 games back)

Golden State: 41-34 (11½ games back)

Still in the hunt

Houston: 38-36 (14½ games back)

Playoff scenarios

If the Wolves finish either first or second in the Western Conference, they will face one of the two teams that win the play-in tournament. If they finish third, they will face the No. 6 overall seed. The Wolves have one major advantage in that they currently hold the tiebreakers over Denver and Oklahoma City if the teams tie in the standings. Timberwolves beat writer Chris Hine explained the situation on X:

The Wolves have seven games remaining — four at home and three on the road — including a monster game at Denver on April 10. The Nuggets have six games remaining — two at home, four on the road — including games against San Antonio, Memphis and Utah, three of the worst teams in the conference. Oklahoma City has seven games remaining — four at home, three on the road — including their current Eastern Conference road trip with games left at Boston and Indiana.

According to Tankathon.com, entering Tuesday night, Oklahoma City has the 10th hardest remaining strength of schedule in the NBA while the Wolves are No. 19 and Denver is No. 29.

Check back here as we continue to update the Western Conference race ahead of the Wolves' return to the playoffs.