NBA Playoff Picture: Where the Timberwolves, Pelicans are holding on for dear life

Almost every day there’s movement in the race for the Western Conference’s final six playoff seeds behind runaway favorites in Houston and Golden State. Games on Sunday alone shuffled seeds four through eight, and just one loss separates the ninth seed from two teams currently in playoff position.

It’s tough to see the the horizon through the window of ever-changing standings, so we’ll do our best here to regularly paint a big picture of the landscape for each team as they look to avoid the lottery.

PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (48-29, currently in third place)
Three games up on fourth place, clinched playoff berth

Projected record: 50-32
Net rating: 2.4
Record against top-10 teams in the West: 16-15
Games left against teams above .500: 4
Home games left: 1
Road games left: 4

The Blazers own a head-to-head tiebreaker against the Thunder. They currently own conference-record tiebreakers against the Spurs and Pelicans. They trail their season series against the Jazz with one game left to even the score. They finished 2-2 against Minnesota, but the Timberwolves currently hold a division-record tiebreaker. The Nuggets and Clippers cannot catch them in the standings.

Good news: The Blazers are the only team in this bunch to have clinched a playoff berth. Despite back-to-back losses to Houston and Boston that snapped a 13-game win streak and a hiccup against Memphis, they’re still playing good basketball — getting the contributions from Mo Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu they’ll need to contend — and it would take a serious slide to fall out of third place.

Bad news: That slide isn’t out of the realm of possibility. After a should-win game in Dallas on Tuesday, the Blazers have a brutal close to the season, with road games against the Rockets, Spurs and Nuggets before their regular-season finale against the Jazz in Portland. There’s no taking their foot off the gas pedal, at least until they’ve held off San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Utah for good.

Remaining games: at Dallas, at Houston, at San Antonio, at Denver, vs. Utah

SAN ANTONIO SPURS (45-32, currently in fourth place)
Three games behind third place, three games up on ninth place

Projected record: 48-34
Net rating: 3.5
Record against top-10 teams in the West: 13-17
Games left against teams above .500: 3
Home games left: 2
Road games left: 3

The Spurs own a head-to-head tiebreaker against the Clippers. They currently hold conference-record tiebreakers against the Thunder and Nuggets. They lost their season series against the Jazz. An April 7 game against the Blazers will determine that tiebreaker, and they must win their final game against the Pelicans to forge ties in that season series.

Good news: The Spurs train rolls, rising from eighth to fourth place with a 6-2 stretch that saw wins over the Wolves, Warriors, Wizards, Jazz, Thunder and Houston. They’re through the toughest part of a difficult end-of-season schedule, thanks to LaMarcus Aldridge, who should make some MVP ballots.

Bad news: The strange Kawhi Leonard saga got stranger over the weekend. The Spurs star reportedly returned to New York to rehab the right quad injury for which the team has cleared him to play, and coach Gregg Popovich announced Leonard will return only “when he and his group feel he’s ready.” Meanwhile, Spurs players have transitioned to the mindset that Leonard will not return this season.

Remaining games: at L.A. Clippers, at L.A. Lakers, vs. Portland, vs. Sacramento, at New Orleans

Corey Brewer has been a nice addition for the Thunder. (AP)

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (45-33, currently in fifth place)
3.5 games behind third place, 2.5 games up on ninth place

Projected record: 47-35
Net rating: 2.7
Record against top-10 teams in the West: 14-17
Games left against teams above .500: 3
Home games left: 2
Road games left: 2

The Thunder own head-to-head tiebreakers against the Jazz and Clippers. They lost season series to the Blazers, Wolves, Pelicans and Nuggets, and they trail a conference-record tiebreaker to the Spurs.

Good news: The Thunder survived much of their end-of-season gauntlet, not moving much in the standings despite a 4-4 record in eight straight games against potential playoff teams. Their four losses came by a total of nine points, so they’re fighting, led by Russell Westbrook‘s push for a second straight triple-double campaign and aided by new addition Corey Brewer‘s insertion into the starting lineup.

Bad news: The Thunder aren’t out of the weeds yet, with games against the Warriors and Rockets this week and a road game in Miami to start next week. Because they’ve already lost tiebreakers to Denver, New Orleans and Minnesota, even a 2-2 finish to the season opens the door for falling out of the hunt.

Remaining games: vs. Golden State, at Houston, at Miami, vs. Memphis

Jazz center Rudy Gobert is making a Defensive Player of the Year push. (AP)

UTAH JAZZ (44-33, currently in sixth place)
Four games behind third place, two games up on ninth place

Projected record: 47-35
Net rating: 4.0
Record against top-10 teams in the West: 17-14
Games left against teams above .500: 3
Home games left: 3
Road games left: 2

The Jazz own head-to-head tiebreakers against the Pelicans and Spurs. They lost their season series to the Thunder and currently trail division-record tiebreakers against the Nuggets and Wolves. They’re 2-1 with one game to play against both the Blazers and Clippers.

Good news: Ugly loss to Atlanta aside, the Jazz remain one of the league’s hottest teams, with Quin Snyder, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert making late-season pushes for Coach, Rookie and Defensive Player of the Year, respectively. Dante Exum (8.8 points and 2.9 assists in 14.9 minutes per game off the bench) has provided a boost, and everyone in the rotation is fulfilling his role.

Bad news: Their columnists could use some work.

Remaining games: vs. L.A. Lakers, vs. L.A. Clippers, at L.A. Lakers, vs. Golden State, at Portland

Jimmy Butler can’t come back soon enough for the Timberwolves. (AP)

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (44-34, currently in seventh place)
4.5 games behind third place, 1.5 games up on ninth place

Projected record: 46-36
Net rating: 1.9
Record against top-10 teams in the West: 19-13
Games left against teams above .500
: 2
Home games left: 2
Road games left
: 2

The Wolves own head-to-head tiebreakers against the Pelicans, Thunder and Clippers. They lost their season series with the Spurs. They currently hold division-record tiebreakers against the Blazers and Jazz. And they’re 2-0 with two games left against the Nuggets.

Good news: Jimmy Butler was cleared for contact on Friday, nearly six weeks after his arthroscopic right knee surgery, meaning he’s one step closer to a projected return before regular season’s end.

Bad news: The Wolves are now 8-8 in their last 16 games without Butler, and starting point guard Jeff Teague sat out Sunday’s loss to Utah with a sore right knee. That stretch has dropped Minnesota from third to seventh, just one loss better than the ninth-place Nuggets with two games left against Denver. Butler’s return can’t get here soon enough.

Remaining games: at Denver, at L.A. Lakers, vs. Memphis, vs. Denver

Anthony Davis rises above. (AP)

NEW ORLEANS PELICANS (43-34, currently in eighth place)
Five games behind third place, one game up on ninth place

Projected record: 46-36
Net rating: 1.0
Record against top-10 teams in the West: 11-21
Games left against teams above .500: 3
Home games left: 2
Road games left: 3

The Pelicans own a head-to-head tiebreaker against the Thunder. They’ve lost season series to the Wolves, Nuggets, Jazz and Spurs. They trail a conference-record tiebreaker with the Blazers. They’re 2-1 with one game to play against the Clippers.

Good news: New Orleans has a breather in its schedule, with games against the Grizzlies and Suns this week before closing out the season against the Warriors, Clippers and Spurs. Anthony Davis continues to play at an MVP level, and the hope is that wins against those two tanking teams and a victory in one of those final three games would be enough to get him in the playoffs for the first time since 2015.

Bad news: The Pelicans are tumbling down the standings. They’ve lost four straight — to Houston, Portland, Cleveland and OKC — dropping from a tie for fifth place to barely clinging to the eighth seed. Jrue Holiday and Nikola Mirotic, whose impressive post-All-Star-break play had been so key to their success without DeMarcus Cousins, have fallen back to Earth, and Davis alone may not be enough.

Remaining games: vs. Memphis, at Phoenix, at Golden State, at L.A. Clippers, vs. San Antonio

Nuggets guard Will Barton has filled in admirably in Gary Harris’ absence. (AP)

DENVER NUGGETS (42-35, currently in ninth place)
Three games behind fourth place, one game behind eighth place

Projected record: 45-37
Net rating: 0.5
Record against top-10 teams in the West: 13-16
Games left against teams above .500: 5
Home games left: 3
Road games left: 2

The Nuggets own head-to-head tiebreakers against the Pelicans and Thunder. They lost their season series to the Clippers. They cannot catch the Blazers in the standings. They split season series against the Jazz and Spurs, holding a division-record tiebreaker against Utah and trailing a conference-record tiebreaker to San Antonio. They must win their final two games against the Wolves to even that series.

Good news: The Nuggets had some frustrating losses in a two-week span last month — to the Mavericks, Lakers, Grizzlies and Heat (in double overtime) — but they’re still alive, thanks to back-to-back OT wins against Oklahoma City and Milwaukee over the weekend. And somehow they’ve done it without Gary Harris, whose knee is expected to cost him a ninth straight game on Tuesday. Will Barton has filled in admirably, and Nikola Jokic just keeps steering an offense that scores at a ridiculous rate.

Bad news: The tough road down the stretch doesn’t get any easier, as the Nuggets play their final five games against teams still battling for playoff position. With three games remaining at home, two games left against the seventh-place Wolves and the possibility the Blazers could be locked into the three seed by the time their game rolls around, Denver can help (or hurt) themselves in pulling even with the Pelicans (Denver owns the tiebreaker) or leapfrogging Minnesota for seventh or eighth place.

Remaining games: vs. Indiana, vs. Minnesota, at L.A. Clippers, vs. Portland, at Minnesota

Clippers forward Danilo Gallinari was 4-for-15 in his first two games back from injury. (AP)

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (41-36, currently in 10th place)
Four games behind fourth place, two games behind eighth place

Projected record: 44-38
Net rating: 1.0
Record against top-10 teams in the West: 8-21
Games left against teams above .500: 4
Home games left: 4
Road games left: 1

The Clippers own a head-to-head tiebreaker against the Nuggets. They lost season series to the Blazers, Wolves, Spurs and Thunder. And they must win their final games against the Jazz and Pelicans to forge season series ties.

Good news: At least there’s hope. The Clips play four of their final four games at home, they already own a head-to-head tiebreaker with the Nuggets, and there’s a good chance they could hold a conference-record tiebreaker over the Pelicans, so they “only” have to make up two games in the standings — with Denver and New Orleans still left on their schedule. It’s a long-shot, but it’s a shot.

Bad news: When fully healthy, the Clippers could compete, but with injuries to Avery Bradley (season-ending abdominal surgery) and Danilo Gallinari (returned over the weekend with a broken bone in his right hand), the burden has been too great for guys like Lou Williams, Tobias Harris, Austin Rivers and Milos Teodosic to carry. They’re 4-7 in their last 11 games, and they have an almost impossible slate to close out the season, with the Lakers waiting at the end just dying to drive a stake into them.

Remaining games: vs. San Antonio, at Utah, vs. Denver, vs. New Orleans, vs. L.A. Lakers

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Ben Rohrbach is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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