Two games in the loss column separate seven teams. The 10th team is two games back in the loss column, having won 11 in a row, and it has one of the easiest remaining schedules. Five of the teams are from the same division. The Spurs are suddenly in the pack — the Spurs! Despite being without their All-Star player, the Nuggets have won seven of ten games. The Clippers traded away Blake Griffin and have won four of five. Cats and dogs, living together, mass hysteria.

Welcome to the Western Conference playoff race, which is looking a lot like Fury Road.

I’ve been tracking playoff races in depth for seven seasons, and I’ve taken a lot of lessons from that process. Here are some quick things to know.

  • The loss column matters. You can make up wins. You can gain in that category. You can’t make up losses. If you’re six back in the loss column, you need the team you’re chasing to lose so you can catch it. That’s why you hear “(x) games back in the loss column.”
  • Schedule always matters, but it matters way more when the standings are tight down the stretch. Do you play the Warriors in early March when they’re still rattling off wins, or do you play them twice in the final week of the season when they may be resting players? For the Jazz, it’s the latter. Do you play three games in four nights with the last one on the road? Or at home? Do you get teams on a back-to-back? Or a road-road back-to-back? Do you get a lucky matchup against a good team missing a key player with injuries? Or do you run into a buzzsaw stretch minus your best or second-best player? These things all matter.
  • Tiebreakers matter. They get overlooked, but there are commonly, even often, situations in which a head-to-head or division tiebreaker winds up determining who gets in and who gets what seed.
  • I break down teams into “locks” (absolutely going to make playoffs/seed), “near locks” (can’t rule out a collapse but it’s a safe bet), “in the hunt” (haven’t caught their prey but are within range) and “bubble teams.”

Here’s a rundown of the West teams fighting for a spot, where they stand, and where they’re headed.

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Photo Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

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