5 teams battle for final 4 playoff spots in West

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Three weeks ago I wrote that it will be a four-team race for the final three playoff spots in the Western Conference. With Portland going 3-8 since then, it is now a five-team race for the final four playoff spots, an unfortunate reality considering nine of the NBA’s top 11 teams reside in the West.
 
The Blazers are now fifth in the standings, four games behind Houston and only three games ahead of Dallas, which is ninth. After starting out an NBA-best 23-5, it is possible, though unlikely, that Rip City will miss the playoffs, an unfathomable thought even a week ago. After missing seven games with a back injury, Lamarcus Aldridge put up 25 points and 16 boards in a win against the Hawks last night. Portland needs Aldridge, their best player, to stay healthy to secure a playoff spot.
 
This next week is vital for the Warriors, who are half a game behind Portland. Steph Curry and company have four games in the next six days, three against very good teams. These games could either solidify Golden State a playoff spot or put their playoff hopes in serious doubt. For a team expected to contend for a championship, missing the playoffs would be disastrous.
 
The Grizzlies have quietly positioned themselves into seventh place thanks to an 11-3 record in March. However, half of these games were against teams in the East, which is subpar to say the least. After this easy stretch of games, the Grizz have a tough schedule the rest of the way, with six games coming against very quality teams, including the final two games against Phoenix and Dallas.
 
Phoenix, which has been the best story in the league throughout the season, currently holds the final playoff spot. They are 7-1 the past two weeks, which has directly coincided with the return of the dynamic Eric Bledsoe. With Bledsoe back and playing well alongside breakout star Goran Dragic, Phoenix has an electrifying backcourt that pushes the ball at every opportunity. For the sake of highly entertaining, overachieving basketball, I hope the Suns find a way to make the postseason.
 
That finally brings us to the Dallas Mavericks, a team no one expected much out of before the season. After a narrow loss against the Clippers, Dallas is half a game behind Phoenix. Led by Dirk Nowitzki, who is having a tremendous year at age 35, the Mavs have been one of the feel good stories this year. Free agent pickups Monta Ellis and Jose Caledron have transitioned flawlessly to the Dirk-centered offense, and fellow ageless wonders Shawn Marion (age 35) and Vince Carter (37) are both averaging double digit points per game. 
 
After a relatively thin week of quality matchups, there are eight important games in the next week: Memphis at Golden State tonight; LA Clippers at Houston on Saturday in a crucial game for determining who gets the third seed; Memphis at Portland on Sunday; Golden State at Dallas on Tuesday; Golden State at San Antonio and LA Clippers at Phoenix on Wednesday; San Antonio at Oklahoma City (Conference Finals preview?) and Dallas at LA Clippers on Thursday. With less than three weeks left in the regular season, expect playoff contenders to play all out and non-playoff teams to tank hard. There will be blowouts to be certain, but also exceptionally hard-fought games like Grizzlies-Warriors and Grizzlies-Trail Blazers.