Lakers vs. Thunder: Playoff Legitimacy Will Be Established in Conference Clash

Maxwell OgdenCorrespondent IIIMarch 5, 2013

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 27:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers keeps his dribble from Thabo Sefolosha #2 of the Oklahoma City Thunder at Staples Center on January 27, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers are in need of a statement win as they make a push for the playoffs. They're presently two games behind the Utah Jazz, 2.5 back of the Houston Rockets and 3.5 away from the Golden State Warriors.

The Lakers completed their climb back to .500 by defeating the Atlanta Hawks and moving to 30-30. The Oklahoma City Thunder have solidified their status as the Western Conference's rising elite by defeating the Los Angeles Clippers and moving to 43-16.

When the Lakers and Thunder clash on Tuesday night, the Lakers' postseason legitimacy may be established.

With a win against OKC, the Lakers could build enough momentum to make a run at the sixth seed in the Western Conference—but until then, let's just focus on getting in at all.

As for the Thunder, they continue to face an uphill climb as they attempt to catch the first-place San Antonio Spurs. Even as they battle a slew of injuries, the Spurs have maintained a three-game lead over the younger Thunder.

Establishing home-court advantage must be a goal for a struggling OKC team that is 4-4 during its past eight games.

So as we approach the March 5 contest, which team has more to lose in this clash of what we assumed (at the beginning of the season) would be a battle of the elite? And which team has the most to gain?


Who Has More on the Line?

The easy answer here would be the Los Angeles Lakers. They're 30-30, two games out of a playoff spot and currently in a situation in which the phrase "every game counts" is applicable.

Regardless of whom it's playing, L.A. needs to win.

With that being said, the Thunder are not in the best position, either. With injuries striking the San Antonio Spurs, OKC has failed to capitalize on a golden opportunity to seize the top spot in the Western Conference.

By going 4-4 during their past eight games, the Thunder have displayed signs of vulnerability. (But keep in mind, all four losses have come against postseason teams.)

For that reason, OKC has plenty to lose. The Thunder are a respectable 17-12 on the road, but they're a much more dominant 26-4 at home.

Securing home-court advantage could go a long way toward creating a path for a repeat as Western Conference champions.

With all of this being established, the Lakers undeniably have the most on the line. Every potential loss would push them further away from the postseason, as the two-game divide needs to lessen soon with just 22 games remaining.

Fortunately, L.A. is 13-5 since Jan. 25—that includes a win over the Thunder in Los Angeles on Jan. 27.


Potential First-Round Preview

If the Lakers defeat the Thunder on March 5, they will own two consecutive victories over the reigning Western Conference champions. If the Thunder win, they'll take the regular-season series by a margin of three games to one.

With the Lakers competing for a low postseason seed, this could be a preview of the first round of the 2013 NBA playoffs—in other words, winning this game could create momentum for a series.

With this in mind, OKC must not allow the Lakers to gain any form of confidence. L.A. may have an underwhelming record, but it remains one of the best on-paper teams in the NBA—one capable of knocking off the Thunder.

By going 13-5 since Jan. 25, the Lakers are showing just how well that status can translate on the court as well.

In the same breath, the Lakers can ill afford to enter the postseason having lost three of four games to the Thunder. This is the team that eliminated them last season, and even with a new cast, L.A. has that fact supplanted in its mind.

For an elite roster that has underachieved, momentum is key—specifically if the Lakers are bound to play an elite Western Conference foe away from home.

Regardless of which angle you take, the March 5 showdown between the Lakers and Thunder has severe implications. Whether that's a fight for postseason position or a sign of things to come, both teams have plenty to lose and even more to gain.

The question is, which team will establish its postseason legitimacy when the Lakers travel to play the Thunder?