With 15 of the 16 NBA playoff spots already clinched, the only major storyline in the league right now is the race for the eighth and final seed out West. Three horses began the week in the race, but after losing to Phoenix last night, the Mavericks were officially eliminated from playoff contention for the first time in 13 years.
So, that leaves us with Los Angeles and Utah. The Lakers increased their slim lead to one full game after last night’s comeback win against the Blazers – a game in which Kobe Bryant carried the team with a season-high 47-point performance – but with three games remaining for each team, it all comes down to the upcoming match-ups on their respective schedules. Here’s a look at both teams’ remaining games.
Los Angeles Lakers – Golden State, San Antonio and Houston
After a horrendous start, the Lakers have surprisingly put together a fine second half of the season, which could have been inspired by Bryant’s guarantee that the Lakers would make the playoffs. However, after looking at L.A.’s last three opponents, fulfilling that guarantee will not be easy.
The Lakers will face three teams that have already clinched Western Conference playoff spots and all three among the best offenses in the NBA, which doesn’t bode well for the defensively challenged Lakers, who are still allowing more than 100 points per game this season. And considering the Lakers have losing records against two of the three (San Antonio, Houston), it’s very unlikely that they will win out, which they may have to do, since Utah’s winning record against L.A. grants the Jazz the all-important tie-breaker.
Then again, the Lakers – being the team that hasn’t clinched – may have a significant advantage against these teams that already have. We know the Spurs like to rest their stars during this time of the year, and Golden State and Houston might consider to do the same to prevent any disastrous late-season injuries.
When looking at this daunting three-game slate, I would say the Lakers will go 2-1 at best. They aren’t good enough to win all three consecutively, but with playoff-bound teams taking the foot off the gas, the Lakers should be able to finish the year strong. The only question is: Will 2-1 be good enough to make the playoffs? Let’s look at Utah’s schedule.
Utah Jazz – Minnesota (twice) and Memphis
While the Lakers will be staring three winning teams in the face down the stretch, the Jazz will only have one to deal with, the fierce, but already playoff-bound, Grizzlies.
Utah is 2-0 against the T-Wolves this season and although Minnesota is playing better as of late, it doesn’t have much to play for, other than to spoil the Jazz’s hopes.
Meanwhile, the Grizzlies are already a lock for the playoffs, but as the current fifth-placed team, they may be in full attack mode as they gun for home court advantage for the their first round match-up. This could be bad news for the Jazz, who are just 1-2 against Memphis this season.
We also have to consider that Utah has not played as well down the stretch as L.A. has. While the Lakers have spent the last couple of months climbing the Western ranks, the Jazz have continued to hover at around .500. The Jazz haven’t put many win streaks together and if the Lakers do finish 2-1 like we predicted earlier, then Utah will need to muster at least a three-gamer to make the playoffs.
Unfortunately for the Jazz, I don’t see that happening. They’ll most likely win both of their bouts with Minnesota, but I see Utah also going 2-1 in its final three contests, which obviously won’t be quite good enough to see its season continue. Look for L.A. to clinch its spot in exciting fashion during the last day of the regular season.