Kobe Bryant (24) and Dwight Howard (12) finally had the sort of game the pundits predicted for them in the preseason when they combined to lead a furious comeback on Wednesday, March 6, in New Orleans. The Los Angeles Lakers, after trailing the New Orleans Hornets by 25 points in the first half, closed the game on a 20-0 run to beat the Hornets 108-102. (Photo by Scott Mecum/Flickr.com)
The Los Angeles Lakers continue to provide their fans with more drama than needed. After running off four straight wins earlier in March, they’ve lost two straight games against two abysmal opponents–the Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards. Neither loss came in great fashion either.
The Lakers lost by 23 to the Suns on Monday and blew a double-digit lead against the Wizards on Friday. It’s one thing to lose to a playoff-caliber team. But losses against the inferior isn’t what a bubble team needs this late in the season.
Los Angeles still owns the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks trail them by just two games and the Portland Trail Blazers are lurking as well, trailing basketball’s most glamourous franchise by three games.
The point: The Lakers shouldn’t be comfortable. At the very least, they should be concerned. And if they want a way to ease those nerves, taking a glance at the remaining schedules of the Jazz and Mavericks wouldn’t be too wise.
Despite dropping four consecutive games, the Jazz’ schedule will become slightly easier over the next seven days, which is quite the relief because they’ve had nothing but challenges thrown their way since the calendar flipped to March.
Utah will face the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday, the Suns on Wednesday, the Trail Blazers on Friday and the Brooklyn Nets Saturday. Of the four, only the Blazers will be on the road.
Utah’s remaining games against winning teams will then boil down to the Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies to end the regular season. In total, they have the third-easiest remaining schedule in the West, percentage-wise.
What’s more, of Utah’s 12 remaining games, only four are on the road, where they’re a bleak 10-27. So, they do have all the ingredients to create a comeback after completely falling out of the race a few weeks ago. But there’s still a constant bitter taste in their mouths regardless. Missing the playoffs would only worsen the taste.
The Mavericks, meanwhile, face only a slightly steeper hill to climb than the Jazz do. Dallas’s win over Utah on Sunday has them hooked in a tie for ninth place, but Utah owns the tiebreaker.
For all the censure the Mavs have taken this season, they’re in the hunt. They might not make the playoffs, but they’re still playing meaningful games, thanks to eight wins over their last 12 games. Essentially, they’re going in the exact opposite direction than the Jazz, which is indeed a good thing.
Dirk Nowitzki, Vince Carter and Shawn Marion have fueled Dallas’ resurgence, while super-scorer O.J. Mayo has taken the backseat. The Mavericks are also third in the NBA in 3-point shooting since Feb. 1.
But none of this will matter if Dallas gets eaten alive this week, which isn’t out of the question as they will play the Los Angeles Clippers, Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers, three powerhouse teams. If there is an upside to this situation, it’s the fact that Dallas will play all three of those teams at home. Otherwise, they don’t have many foreseeable advantages.
Dirk Nowitzki has finally returned to the court on a consistent basis. Photo Credit: Keith Allison, Flickr.com
So, the Mavs sit in a tough situation. While the Jazz have four relatively favorable games this week, they have three extremely hard opponents. The timing really couldn’t be worse.
And if the Mavs manage to tread water, which would look something like them winning one of two of their next three games, then we would have headlines.
Realistically, the Jazz should win at least two of their four games this week. Three wins would be optimistic and perhaps expected, given the weak competition. If the Mavericks remain close (say, two wins), the final stretch will be very interesting. Utah statistically figures to have the more favorable schedule, but nothing seems assured with them these days.
Then there are the lowly Trail Blazers, who do sit just two and a half games out of eighth place, but there remaining schedule (hardest in the NBA) indicates that playoff basketball won’t be coming to the Rose Garden.
So yes, the Western Conference playoff race is probably closer then you might think. To make things all the more interesting, the Lakers have the fourth-hardest remaining schedule in the West.
Let’s just say that the Lakers are far, far from a level of comfort. If they hold on, that will only be the beginning of the originally expected goal: A championship. If they choke, they will be the official laughingstock of the league for not one year, but many in the future.
There’s very little room for error in Los Angeles.