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SPORTS

Countdown To The Playoffs

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1. Spurs (42-12)      ---

2. Thunder (39-14)  2.5

3. Clippers (39-17)  4.0

4. Grizzlies (33-18)  7.5

5. Nuggets (33-21)  9.0

6. Warriors (30-22)  11

7. Jazz (30-24)        12

8. Rockets (29-26)  13.5

-------------------------------

9. Blazers (25-28)   16.5

10. Lakers (25-29)  17.0

11. Mavs (23-29)    18.0

The All-Star break is over and the NBA's stretch run is set to begin. The Thunder is in no danger of missing the playoffs, but San Antonio has opened up a small lead in the race for No. 1 seed while the Clippers are closing in fast.

Every Monday, we'll have an updated look at who's doing what as we count down to the playoffs. Here's what's coming up this week in the Western Conference.

Spurs

This week: @Kings | @Clippers | @Warriors | @Suns

It's a busy week for the current top seed. Four road games of varying difficulty but none more interesting than a trip to play the Clips. Popovich would never admit it, but 3-1 in those four would do just fine.

Thunder

This week: @Rockets | vs. Wolves | vs. Bulls

OKC must emotionally recover from its embarrassing home beatdown to the Heat before the break, because a loss to James Harden would just make matters worse. Wolves at home should be a win while Bulls will provide a nice challenge. The Thunder must avoid bad losses if it wants a chance to catch the Spurs.

Clippers

This week: vs. Spurs | vs. Jazz

The Clippers only play two games this week, and both are home. Sounds good, right? No. It doesn't get a whole lot tougher than Spurs and Jazz, two of the hottest teams in the league. A 2-0 week would start putting some heat on Oklahoma City.

Grizzlies

This week: @Pistons | @Raptors | vs. Magic | @Nets

The Grizz open the second half against four Eastern Conference opponents. While this looks pretty easy, the Pistons and Raptors have been playing really well lately and the Nets are tough at home. Grizzlies should shoot to win three of these, especially Wednesday's reunion with Rudy Gay in Toronto.

Nuggets

This week: vs. Celtics | @Wizards | @Bobcats

This should have 3-0 written all over it, but not when you consider how bad these guys have been on the road. If Denver wants to be taken more seriously, it has to improve its road woes. Trips to Washington and Charlotte are must-wins in pursuit of home-court advantage in the first round.

Warriors

This week: @Jazz | vs. Suns | vs. Spurs | @Wolves

The Warriors appear to be falling back to Earth after their smoking-hot start to the season. Five straight losses entering the break has this team spiraling to the bottom of the playoff race. Golden State needs a spark to help avoid slipping to those dreaded seventh or eighth spots—or worse.

Jazz

This week: vs. Warriors | @Clippers

Don't look now, but the Jazz is a season-high six games over .500 and appear to be hitting its stride. Utah is 15-7 over its past 22 games and has risen from the ashes all the way to contending for the five seed in the playoffs. A win over the Warriors this week would be huge and a trip to play the Clippers is a great opportunity to take the next step.

Rockets

This week: vs. Thunder | @Nets | @Wizards

The Rockets are sitting right where they have all season—at the end of the bench. Yeah, they're in good position to grab a playoff spot, but that won't do ‘em much good. If you're in that seventh or eighth spot, you're toast, because nobody's beating the Spurs or Thunder in the first round. With that said, Houston needs to get on a roll if they want to escape the cellar.

Blazers

This week: vs. Suns | @Lakers | vs. Celtics

Portland has lost five in a row to fall out the top eight in the West. If the young Blazers are going to respond, Tuesday's home date with Phoenix is a must-win. Friday's trip to Los Angeles will be huge as well as both teams jockey for position.

Lakers

This week: vs. Celtics | Blazers | @Mavericks

The Lakers have been a joke from day one this season, but thanks to raw talent alone, they're far from dead. If L.A. wants to make a push for the playoffs, a win over Boston would give them quite the spark to start the second half. It will also be interesting to see how a team that's been divided all season responds to the death of longtime owner Dr. Jerry Buss. It could be what finally brings this team together from a mental and emotional standpoint.

Mavericks

This week: vs. Magic | @Hornets | vs. Lakers

Dallas begins the stretch run just three games back of Houston in the loss column, so hope certainly still exists. Now that Dirk Nowitzki is back in the groove, the Mavs are as healthy as they've been all season, but they have very little room for error. Dallas' first two games this week are against inferior teams and need to be wins, and Sunday's home date with the Lakers will be absolutely huge.

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