With the Los Angeles Lakers, there's more to know than meets the eye.
Hollywood's playoff odds have skyrocketed post All-Star break, yet the Western Conference's playoff picture reads like a novel of utter chaos.
Outside of the top three slots, we know almost nothing. Six teams are realistically in play for the bottom three seeds, each of which has more than 15 games remaining.
Los Angeles' postseason odds are now far better than that of a coin toss, but the potential for the Lakers to be bulldozed out of the picture remains. There's also an opportunity for them to move up, rise above the eighth seed and avoid a first-round matchup against the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder.
The key for the Lakers is cognizance. They must be well aware of whom they're chasing and who is right behind them. In other words, the more they (and we) know, the better.
A Look Ahead
Per Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, X-rays were negative and Kobe was diagnosed with a severely sprained ankle.
Adrian Wojnarowski @WojVerticalNBA
After x-rays on left ankle, Kobe Bryant limping through locker room with ankle wrapped.3/14/2013, 2:24:54 AM
Bryant said that this was as bad an ankle sprain as he's had since the 2000 playoffs, and that he doesn't know when he'll be able to return (via Mike Trudell of Lakers.com):
Mike Trudell @LakersReporter
Kobe said this is as bad a sprain as he's had since 2000 playoffs. He "doesn't know" how it will respond, when he'll return.3/14/2013, 3:01:43 AM
Kobe has played in all 66 of Los Angeles' games thus far, and any time he has to miss will be detrimental to the team's playoff chances.
Adding to the difficulties of the road ahead, eight of Los Angeles' final 16 games are on the road. Of those eight, five are against playoff-bound or hopeful teams.
In total, 10 of the Lakers' final 16 come against playoff-bound or fringe teams, nine of which are currently over .500.
The folks over at Basketball-Reference have the magic number for the eighth seed set at 43 at the moment, essentially meaning that the Lakers must go 9-7 over their last 16 to clinch that playoff berth.
Following the All-Star break, the Lakers won 9-of-12, suggesting that such a mediocre finish isn't just within reason, but more than likely. What we must take into account, however, is that just three of those victories came against teams above .500. With nine games remaining against winning factions, the going might not be so easy.
To further complicate matters, the Lakers are just 12-21 on the road this season, and they haven't beaten a team above .500 on the road since they defeated the Brooklyn Nets on Feb. 5. In fact, they're just 2-16on the season away from the Staples Center when facing squads above .500. Given that five of their remaining nine bouts against winning teams come on the road, this could pose a problem.
It also means the Lakers may be in need of some outside help.
Those Chasing the Lakers
After Utah fell to the Thunder, the Lakers remained a half-game ahead of the Jazz for the eighth and final slot.
Los Angeles, at the very least, needs to maintain that half-game lead. Utah owns the season series tie breaker, meaning that the Lakers need to beat them outright.
The good news for the Lakers? Utah plays 9 of its final 17 games against teams above .500. The even better news for the Lakers? Utah is just 10-25 on the season when facing such teams.
Still, a half-game lead isn't much of a cushion. It also doesn't help that four of Utah's games come against the Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers (twice) and Dallas Mavericks. All those teams are chasing the Lakers, and a win for any of them (Jazz included) doesn't help the cause.
Right behind the Jazz are the Mavericks.
Dallas currently trails the Lakers by three games, putting them one string of victories away from making this an even more interesting race.
Before the Los Angeles faithful go slamming that panic button though, it's important to note that the Mavericks have an extremely tough schedule to close out the season.
Of their 19 remaining games, 13 come against teams above .500. Dallas is 9-26 on the season against winning outfits. Should such a trend continue, Mark Cuban's troops aren't a platoon the Lakers should fear.
Los Angeles can help itself further by beating the Mavericks (April 2). The Lakers have won 2-of-3 against the Mavericks thus far, and one more victory would secure a season series victory.
It does work both ways, however. Losing that game allows the Mavericks to gain substantial ground on the boys in purple and gold, essentially cutting their current deficit to just two games.
If we're the Lakers, we don't want Dallas' schedule to do all the work. Taking the fourth and final meeting puts them in more control than they already are.
Portland Trail Blazers
Don't count out Oregon's finest just yet.
Portland trails Los Angeles by four games and, much like Dallas, is a string of wins away from breathing down the Lakers' neck.
A winning streak is far easier said than done knowing what the Blazers are facing, though. Over their last 19 games, 16 come against winning teams.
For most that's a daunting task, and the Blazers are no different. Their 14-18 record against units above .500 bodes well for the Lakers.
These two teams have one meeting left this season (April 10) in Portland, which could wind up meaning nothing or everything.
Even if the Blazers go on a tear to close out the year, though, the Lakers can secure yet another tie breaker by unseating Damian Lillard and Co. on their own turf.
With less than 20 games to go and a potentially crippling road ahead, Portland doesn't pose too perilous a threat. Not as big of a threat as Utah or Dallas.
Those Ahead of the Lakers
Looking over your shoulder can only do so much for the Lakers. A far more efficient way for them to procure a postseason berth is to move up the playoff ranks.
Los Angeles presently trails Houston by 1.5 games, paving the way for this one to come down to the wire. That the Lakers and Rockets close out the season against each other in Los Angeles only adds to the intrigue.
Assuming the Lakers are able to hold their home court in the final game of year, that would give them a half-game deficit to overcome. But even when making such an assumption, the road to No. 7 isn't going to be easy, even slightly.
Nine of Houston's remaining 17 games come against teams above .500, and 11 come at home, where the Rockets are 21-9.
As for those .500-plus clubs causing a severe problem for James Harden and crew, they are 19-18 against such contingents. Therefore, their demise at the hands of playoff-bound components is hardly guaranteed.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, they have no chance of owning the tiebreak. Houston won two of the three meetings between the two thus far.
As such, Los Angeles must remain within a half-game heading into that final matchup for it to mean anything of true significance, barring a major collapse by either team, of course.
A month ago we would have laughed off the notion of the Lakers catching the Warriors. Now, it's no longer funny.
Los Angeles is just two games behind Golden State for sixth place. Headed by an inconsistent defensive attack, the Warriors are just 7-7 since the All-Star break. They are also 0-2 against the Lakers with two meetings two go. Los Angeles can gain some serious ground by winning both or even one of those, depending on how Golden State fares otherwise.
Eight of the Warriors' final 16 games come opposite teams above .500, against which they are 15-24 on the season. Overall, nine of their final games come at home, where they are a dominant 22-9.
Aside from playing the Lakers twice, they also face the Blazers twice, and the Jazz and Rockets once.
The Jazz and Rockets contests complicate things for the Lakers in some regard. Seeing the Rockets and/or Jazz beat the Warriors brings them closer to Golden State, but Los Angeles' primary concern is making the playoffs first. Any victories by Houston and Utah impede that quest.
Chasing the Warriors should be a priority, but the Lakers can use the remaining two bouts to help close the gap. Staving off the Jazz and catching the Rockets is a bigger concern right now.
Those Who Can Help the Lakers
Denver has fifth place locked down.
The Nuggets are 10 games ahead of the Lakers and hoping Los Angeles catches them is beyond insane. What they can do, however, is help the Lakers.
Denver is 4.5 games back of the Thunder in the Northwest Division so they won't finish in the top three. Therefore, they aren't a likely playoff opponent for a Lakers team vying for a bottom three spot.
Five of Denver's final 16 games come against the Blazers, Mavericks (twice), Jazz and Rockets. Any victories the Nuggets snag from any one of those teams is a half-game in Los Angeles' favor.
In other words, Kobe Bryant wants the Nuggets to get busy.
Memphis is in a similar position to that of Denver.
Six of Memphis' final 17 games come against the Rockets (twice), Jazz (twice), Mavericks and Blazers. With each victory over one of those foes, a half-game is given in Los Angeles' favor.
So Kobe wants Memphis go get busy, too.
Who do the Lakers Want to Face in the First Round?
3. San Antonio Spurs
Knowing that the Spurs should have Tony Parker back in time for the playoffs renders them the most lethal of possibilities.
San Antonio is still in play for the best record in the league, which would be the third straight year the team accomplished such a feat. Los Angeles is 0-2 on the season against Gregg Popovich's squad, and while both games have been decided by three points or less, San Antonio has been near perfect at home (26-4).
Let's not forget that the Spurs were 10-0 in their first 10 postseason outings last year either. The Lakers would welcome the opportunity to avoid that.
With the Spurs and Thunder locked in a battle for the top seed, Los Angeles' best shot at avoiding the former is to claim the sixth seed. Moving up two spots won't be easy going down the stretch, but it's something the Lakers should look to accomplish if they wish to avoid San Antonio.
Finishing seventh could do the trick as well, but that's a risk. The Spurs have a one game edge on the Thunder, yet until Tony Parker returns they're at a severe disadvantage.
Just like the Lakers would be if they faced them in the first round.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
In so many ways, the Thunder are equally as dangerous as the Spurs.
They're 29-4 at home and are perhaps the most explosive team in the conference. Keeping pace with them isn't going to be easy.
Los Angeles does matchup better with Oklahoma City than San Antonio, though. Like Mike D'Antoni, Scott Brooks tends to only stretch his rotation seven or eight deep, mitigating the significance of a strong second unit.
As well as Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks and even Antawn Jamison have played as of late, the Lakers hardly have a strong bench.
One could make the case, however, that with Pau Gasol in the rotation, the Lakers have a legitimate chance at pulling off an upset. That kind of size and offense coming off the bench is something the Thunder don't have even in Nick Collison.
It doesn't hurt that the Lakers have beaten the Thunder once already this season either.
Still, with home-court advantage in hand, the Thunder would be a tough out.
The Lakers are 0-3 on the season against the Clippers, but let's not pretend this isn't the best conceivable matchup.
There would be no such thing as a true road game in this series, which means more for the Lakers than it ever could for the Clippers.
Los Angeles' red-jerseyed stepchild has a strong grasp on the Pacific Division (nine-game lead), but they also seem destined to lock up the third seed.
Black Mamba and Co. need to sew up the third seed to make this happen.
So, I guess a toast to the Warriors, Rockets and even Jazz incurring some extensive losing streaks is in order.
My sincerest of congratulations for navigating the minefield that is Los Angeles' playoff outlook. It's nowhere near as lucid as the team's roster initially suggested it would be.
Exhausting as it was, though, understanding what and who they're up against is a necessity. The Lakers have finally clawed their way back into the picture, and now it's time for them to become a permanent fixture and secure a seed.
To do that, they're going to need to keep winning.
To draw the ideal matchup (Clippers), they're going to need their nearest adversaries to start losing, otherwise, a first-round date with the Spurs or Thunder seems inevitable.
Unless Bryant is forced to ride the sidelines, that is. Without him (at all), the Lakers' playoff chase becomes far more difficult.
And a berth becomes anything but "inevitable."
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
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