The Trail Blazers enter the final three games of the regular season – their most difficult stretch of the year by combined opponent's record – at 40-29, even with the Dallas Mavericks and a game ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Portland, after consecutive losses to the Memphis Grizzlies, was at real risk of falling to eighth in the standings or below barely more than two weeks ago. Needless to say, Terry Stotts' team picked the absolute perfect time to burst from its nadir and reel off eight wins in nine games.
No matter where they end up in the standings, the Blazers' postseason prospects will be far better than ever seemed possible during a distressing April. But the chances of Portland advancing in the playoffs will still hinge largely on the last few days of the regular season, deciding play-in fates and first-round matchups of not just the Blazers and their competition for fifth, but almost the entire Western Conference.
Here are Portland's best-case, worst-case and most realistic outcomes before a relentless regular season comes to a close Sunday afternoon.
Best-Case: Earning No. 5 For First-Round Fight With Denver
Everyone out West wants the Nuggets, a fraught wish with Nikola Jokic staking his claim as basketball's most unstoppable offensive force. But dealing with Denver, absent Jamal Murray, and the MVP shoo-in is still the Blazers' most attractive first-round possibility, especially with Jusuf Nurkic showing consistent flashes of the peak, pre-injury form he reached in 2019.
There's a slight chance Denver vaults the LA Clippers for third, but better odds are that Michael Malone rests his regulars for some or all of the season finale against Portland on Sunday – netting the Blazers a surefire win. All they'd have to do before that? Beat the teams with the two best records in basketball on a road back-to-back. Simple!
Worst-Case: Falling to Seventh and Play-In Date With Steph Curry
LeBron James ultimately electing against returning on Wednesday only matters so much to the Lakers versus the tanking Houston Rockets. Los Angeles' last two games come against the Indiana Pacers, who've already clinched a play-in spot, and the bound-to-be eliminated New Orleans Pelicans, playing without Zion Williamson.
There's a very good chance the Lakers win their last three games. Same goes for the Mavericks, facing the Pelicans before the tanking Minnesota Timberwolves and Toronto Raptors. In that scenario, it would take two losses for Portland to tumble to seventh, where a prospective play-in date with Steph Curry – playing arguably the best basketball of his career – and the Golden State Warriors looms.
Rules of the play-in tournament make the seven seed very unlikely to fail to advance to the playoffs. Then again, we've seen what Ja Morant and the Grizzlies are capable of doing to the Blazers in high-stakes games already this season, and Memphis would be supremely motivated to avenge its loss to Portland in the bubble play-in game last August.
Most Realistic: The Six Seed and Rough Matchup Against LA Clippers
This is the result FiveThirtyEight spits out, with the Blazers projected to go 1-2 over their last three games, finishing tied with the Lakers and a game back of the Mavericks. But nearly as realistic is Portland taking two of its last three, with Los Angeles and Dallas winning out – netting the Blazers No. 6 because of their massive win over the defending champs last Friday.
Another manner in which Portland ends up sixth? A three-way tie between the Blazers, Lakers and Mavericks, the latter getting the five seed despite losing the head-to-head tie-breaker to Portland because they won their division. We don't make the rules, archaic as they are; take it up with the league office.
The Clippers aren't quite locked into third, just one game in front of the Nuggets. LA is almost guaranteed two more wins, though, and Denver – unfortunately for the Blazers – just doesn't have much incentive to fight to push ahead of Ty Lue's squad.
The Clippers might be Portland's least desirable first-round opponent of every team in the league. Kawhi Leonard has been something close to a playoff trump card for years, and Paul George has decimated Portland this season. LA can match the Blazers' long-range firepower, doesn't rely on the rim to score and has multiple defenders to throw at Damian Lillard. Its small-ball lineup is one of the league's best.
Portland doesn't want the Clippers. Good thing, then, that Lillard and company control their own destiny for No. 5 – no matter how tough the schedule is.