- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The stat geeks and sports radio hosts love it. For the guys involved, the jumbled mess in the Western Conference standings is creating some headaches.

Travel plans are on hold, and forget about getting a jump on scouting a first-round opponent.

“Nearly impossible,” Portland coach Nate McMillan said.

With two days left in the regular season, the Trail Blazers can still finish third, fourth or fifth in the West. They’re likely to open the playoffs against either Houston or San Antonio, but they won’t know until Wednesday night whether that would be in Texas or Oregon.

Or, they could host Dallas, New Orleans or Utah.

And the Blazers, who were having their scouts break down tape of every West playoff team but the Lakers, aren’t the only ones inconvenienced.

“I can’t figure out my playoff travel schedule yet because the 2 to 8 seeds are still being determined in the West,” NBA commissioner David Stern said.

Stern wants his postseason itinerary to include Portland, since the Trail Blazers are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2003, but he doesn’t know yet if that’s one of the early stops or not.

It isn’t much easier on the rest of his staff.

“It’s really stressful for our scheduling folks,” NBA spokesman Tim Frank said.

Frank said the schedule makers begin working on playoff drafts three weeks before the end of the season, so the league can announce the entire first-round slate shortly after the regular season ends late Wednesday night.

So while they’re mostly prepared, last-minute problems can still arise, such as teams earning home-court advantage that have building conflicts on the same day games are supposed to be played. The league already has a tricky spot in Boston, where the NHL’s Bruins are home on Saturday night and Bruce Springsteen has concerts next Tuesday and Wednesday.

But the league has dealt with this before, including last season, when the West’s playoff picture was just as unclear.

“You never, ever really get to the last day knowing exactly what will happen,” Frank said.

That doesn’t make it any easier on coaches who want to get working on their playoff plans, but need a playoff opponent first. No team had more to gain _ or lose _ going into the final day than Houston, which could end up as high as the No. 2 seed, or fall all the way to fifth and have to open the playoffs on the road.

“I would rather have it secured because then we could start our preparation,” Rockets coach Rick Adelman said. “Right now, we’re going to have to wait until Thursday morning to see who we’re going to play. The way this is set up now, depending on what the league decides, if you play on the road and you have to play Saturday, that’s tough, that really puts you at a disadvantage.”

The Eastern Conference situation was more settled. Two matchups are already set (Cleveland-Detroit and Atlanta-Miami), and No. 2 Boston and No. 3 Orlando were just waiting for Philadelphia and Chicago to sort out the Nos. 6 and 7 spots.

That allowed some teams to rest players in the meaningless final days as they look to the postseason. No such luck for the Mavericks, Hornets and Jazz, who needed every win they could get to avoid facing the Lakers in the first round.

The West players aren’t the only ones working overtime. Scouts from the Lakers, Nuggets, Spurs, Rockets and Blazers all spent Easter Sunday in New Orleans, watching the Hornets beat the Mavericks. Utah, which can’t play either of those teams in the first round, was the only playoff-bound West team that skipped the game.

Then again, some teams aren’t as concerned with late-season scouting, figuring they have already seen enough of their potential opponents.

“We play all these teams four times a year, you know, and we’ve been scouting them anyway. So I don’t think that’s really an issue,” Dallas owner Mark Cuban said. “I don’t think anybody’s going to, all of a sudden, play Kobe at center or do anything outrageous.”

Maybe not, but they can still offer changes from game to game. New Orleans, for example, could have a much different look Wednesday if Tyson Chandler can rejoin the lineup. Recently, Hilton Armstrong and Melvin Ely have been manning the middle.

“It’s hard to zero in on one team. You can’t do that at this point, but it is something all the teams are used to working with and we’re all trying to figure out the same things,” Hornets general manager Jeff Bower said.

“Obviously there’s still a degree of uncertainty: Does (what a potential opponent is doing now) fit the pattern of the year and are there changes being made? But that’s the excitement the playoffs create.”

Houston certainly wasn’t taking any chances. The Rockets still could meet anyone other than the Lakers or Nuggets, though general manager Daryl Morey, with a background in statistics, said they had a 61 percent chance of facing the Hornets or Trail Blazers.

Morey said any team downplaying scouting at this time was “trying to throw people off the scent.” The Rockets dispatched advance scout Pat Zipfel to Los Angeles on Tuesday night to watch the Lakers-Jazz, and they planned to be at both the Blazers’ and Hornets’ finales Wednesday.

“The Lakers with (Andrew) Bynum. (Manu) Ginobili (injured) for the Spurs. New Orleans getting Chandler back. Portland’s got (Greg) Oden rolling,” Morey said. “All these teams, every team is going to look a little bit different.”

The Rockets tried to clear things up for their players Tuesday, giving them a two-sided sheet of paper with all the various playoff scenarios. With so much left to sort out, at least one player planned to ignore the handout.

“I’m going to go home and have a paper-airplane fight with my wife. That’s what I’m going to do with that piece of paper. It means nothing,” forward Shane Battier said. “We’ve got to go to Dallas, we’ve got to play well and we’ve got to win.”

_____

AP Sports Writers Jaime Aron in Dallas, Chris Duncan in Houston, Brett Martel in New Orleans, and Anne Peterson in Portland, Ore., contributed to this report.

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