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Break down of the Western Conference battle for the third seed

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Houston may have the easiest path to third in the Western Conference.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Rockets have only 24 days and 13 games left in the season to decide their fate for the playoffs, and they’ll need every single bit of it to land good seeding.

The Western Conference playoff picture, as you know, has turned into a pivotal battle for third spot - also a pretty interesting fight to sort out sixth through eighth (if you’re into that kind of thing). The good news for Houston (43-26) is that they’ve been the hottest team in the league since the All-Star break, knocking down 10 of its last 11 opponents. The bad news is that, as of Saturday morning, they’re only a half game ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers (42-26) and one game ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

So does any one team have a clear advantage here in the final stretch? The answer is yes and no.

According to the strength of schedule statistics from Tankathon.com, Houston actually has the 22nd most difficult remaining schedule, while Portland has the 15th most difficult, and Oklahoma City is way at the top with the 4th most difficult schedule in the league.

As unbiased as possibly can be, down the stretch, the Rockets will face only two opponents that affect their race for third (or higher): the Denver Nuggets on March 28 and the Thunder on the very last game of the season, April 9. So the fight for higher seeding for the Thunder and Rockets could literally come down to one game. Houston, to its credit, since when the race became truly heated, has actually outperformed their schedule and beaten teams that were real competition: Warriors, Celtics, Raptors, and 76ers.

The Rockets’ remaining schedule consists of actually really bad teams - not just middle-of-the-pack - in the Knicks, Suns, Hawks, Grizzlies, Pelicans, and Timberwolves. But they do have to face the sleeper team, Sacramento Kings, twice as well. If Houston can sneak past the 3-4 games left between the Bucks, Nuggets, Thunder, Spurs, or Clippers, they can easily go (conservatively) 10-3 this final stretch, while also being able to control their own destiny and will themselves one game closer to the Nuggets (Rockets 2-1 lead) and one game ahead of the Thunder (Thunder 2-1 lead).

Not to go into too much detail about the opponents’ remaining schedules, because you could always check out the link, but the Trail Blazers and Thunder have some meaningful games left to play that directly benefit the Rockets. Before we get to that, let me just say that the Thunder, in their current eight-game stretch, face the Pacers twice (already lost one), the Raptors twice in three days, the Nuggets, and the Warriors (tonight). Sheeesh.

Back to the initial point and disregarding the tough scheduling listed above, the Thunder face the Nuggets and the Warriors one more time each this season. Those two matches could push OKC back at least two games, or pull Houston at least one more game closer to the first and second seed, but inevitably bring the Thunder two games closer to the Rockets, whom they play on their second-to-last game.

Portland, on the other hand, will not play any of its three-seed rivals. Instead, the Trail Blazers will have the hefty task of facing its divisional opponent, Denver Nuggets, in a home-and-home series on April 5 and 7. With the Nuggets competitively battling to keep second place and even try to land the top seed, those games will be anything but easy for either team.

As long as the Rockets doesn’t allow themselves to fall victim to bad losses, they arguably have the easiest path to the third seed and securing home court advantage in round one. With the outright lead in the race, they can control their own destiny.