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Future Tense?

The Grizzlies' chances for the playoffs are still a jump-ball.

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The NBA is difficult to forecast. Just take a look at the gulf between the universal preseason predictions for the Minnesota Timberwolves and Seattle Sonics and those teams' actual oncourt accomplishments. But with the second half of the season upon us, we might as well read the NBA tea leaves of the Grizzlies and their rivals for the final spots in the Western Conference playoff race and try to get a sense of what the future holds.

Memphis Grizzlies: 30-23, 7th place

Schedule: Griz schedule is about as even as it gets in terms of home/road splits and the quality of their opponents. The problem is how backloaded it is. The team's final eight games include two with league-leading San Antonio, two with perennial division power Dallas, and games against East-leading Miami and bitter rival Houston. This means the Griz need a playoff cushion heading into April or making the post-season could be a dicey proposition. Momentum: After having unexpected success (7-4) while forced to play without offensive linchpin Pau Gasol for a solid month, Griz finally felt the blow heading into the break, shooting under 40 percent in three consecutive games, two of them losses. And right now, there's no timetable for Gasol's return.

Sacramento Kings: 33-20, 5th place

Schedule: Kings opponents are pretty good, with a .517 winning percentage, but a healthy number of remaining games are against the Eastern Conference, where the Kings have been as good as any team out West. Momentum: Kings won six straight after trading for guard Cuttino Mobley in January but have gone only 6-9 since.

Houston Rockets: 32-21, 6th place

Schedule: Brutal. Rockets opponents boast a .545 winning percentage, and the Rockets play 16 of 29 on the road and, even worse, 24 of 29 against the superior West. Worse still? Ten of the team's total 14 games against the league's four best teams are yet to come. Momentum: Rockets went into the All-Star break on an eight-game win streak. Trades for shooters David Wesley and Jon Barry and the return of do-it-all guard Bob Sura from the injured list have given stars Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming a much-improved supporting cast.

Los Angeles Lakers: 26-24, 8th place

Schedule: Rough. Lakers play 19 of last 32 on the road and only have a single home game left against a bad team (the Knicks) and only three games against the league's cellar dwellers. One stretch in March has Lakers playing eight of nine games on the road, which could land a serious body blow to their playoff hopes. Momentum: Lakers survived the loss of Kobe Bryant for a few weeks but are only 2-5 under interim coach Frank Hamblen.

Minnesota Timberwolves: 27-27, 9th place

Schedule: Wolves have a few more road than home games left, but their opponents have a combined winning percentage below .500. The Wolves will play eight games against the league's dregs and only three against San Antonio, Phoenix, and Miami. Momentum: Bad chemistry and nagging injuries have derailed this would-be title contender. It's too soon to tell if new coach Kevin McHale will make a difference.

Denver Nuggets: 24-29, 10th place

Schedule: Nuggets have the easiest remaining schedule -- 17 of 29 games at home, the lowest opponent winning percentage, seven games with the league's five hopeless teams, and a seven-game March homestand that could vault them back into contention. Momentum: Disappointing Denver is on its third coach of the season but has gone 7-4 since hiring veteran George Karl. If Voshon Lenard and bruiser Nene can return from injury, Denver could be a playoff factor.

Conclusion: Good news for the Griz (as long as Gasol returns soon) with the closest playoff rivals Rockets and Lakers facing the most difficult second-half schedules. Sacramento will be tough to catch, but unless Houston's eight-game win streak means they've suddenly become an elite team, Griz should be able to make a push for the sixth seed in the playoffs and a likely first-round meeting with inexperienced Seattle.

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