Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers dreamt of walking away with this season's NBA title. But before they can fantasize any further about hoisting that Larry O'Brien Trophy into the air, they've got to make the playoffs first.
Securing a postseason berth wasn't even supposed to be a question, though. Of course they would. Kobe, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash are perennial All-Stars. The real question was: Is there such a thing as too much winning?
Inside of 10 games to play, the Lakers aren't worried about running away with a title. They're on the cusp of being run out of the playoff picture.
Following their thrashing of the Dallas Mavericks and the Utah Jazz's loss to the Denver Nuggets, the Lakers have a half-game lead over both teams for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Utah still owns the tiebreaker, though, essentially meaning that the Lakers must finish with the better record clean and clear, or watch the postseason unfold from home.
Even after the victory over Dallas, Tinseltown is still just 2.5 games ahead of the surging Mavericks and is thus left looking over its shoulder the rest of the way as well.
No, it's not going to take a miracle for the Lakers to make the playoffs. But it's not going to be the equivalent of a cakewalk, either.
Not even close.
What's Ahead for the Lakers?
As of April 4, the Lakers have just seven games remaining, which means they're short on time.
Five of those games are played at home. And if you want to be realistic, it's technically six. They play the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center as the away team on April 7.
Los Angeles is 24-12 at home, compared to 15-24 on the road, so this comes as good news.
Less of a relief are the opponents the Lakers will be going up against. Five of their last seven games come against teams above .500.
On the season, the Lakers are 14-26 against winning factions, which hardly instills any votes of confidence.
Also an issue are the opposing teams themselves.
To close out the season, the Lakers will play the Memphis Grizzlies, Clippers, New Orleans Hornets, Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets (in that order). Four of those teams have beaten Los Angeles at least twice this season (Grizzlies, Clippers, Spurs and Rockets) and three of them (Grizzlies, Clippers and Spurs) the Lakers have yet to beat this season.
In total, the Lakers are 8-11 against their remaining opponents. Against the five teams over .500, they're a combined 3-10.
Somewhat luckily for the Lakers, each of their remaining games against playoff-bound clubs come at Staples Center. They're just 3-18 on the road when playing winning teams. Had the locales of these contests been anywhere else, Los Angeles would have been in for an even tougher road ahead.
For Kobe and crew to move up in the standings, they're going to have to reverse some pretty alarming trends. They can't afford to lose to anyone at this point, including postseason-caliber squads.
If they wish to make the playoff push they envisioned over the offseason, they must find ways to win in games they've typically lost this season.
What's Ahead for the Jazz
Though the Lakers would like to believe that they control their own destiny, they don't. Not completely.
Winning will only increase their chances of making the playoffs, but they're going to need some other teams to lose as well. Like the Jazz.
As of April 4, Utah has six games remaining. Unlike the Lakers, it has the luxury of owning the tiebreaker over both Los Angeles itself and Dallas.
Of their six games remaining, the Jazz play three against outfits above .500, and three of their final six on the road.
For the Lakers, this could present a problem.
Utah is 28-10 at home this season, compared to just 11-27 on the road and 2-19 away from home against winning organizations.
Against their remaining opponents, the Jazz are a combined 7-6. The playoff-probabilities tool over at Basketball-Reference predicts them to finish 3-3, for a final record of 42-40.
Assuming that rings true, the Lakers will have to finish their season 4-3 to clinch eighth place.
And that's before we take into account what the Mavericks have left.
What's Ahead for the Mavericks
Dallas currently trails the Lakers and Jazz by just 2.5 games, and as of April 4, has eight games remaining.
Making up such a deficit is going to be difficult, but it's not impossible. Far from it, in fact. And the Lakers can't forget that.
What Los Angeles can't forget is that the Mavericks have an easier schedule to close out the year.
Of their last eight games, just three come against teams above .500, only one of which is on the road, where the Mavericks are 14-23.
Dallas is also a combined 10-5 against its remaining adversaries, an uncomfortable number for a Lakers team that is 8-11 against theirs.
That same playoff-probability tool, however, has the Mavericks finishing just 4-4 on the season and, ultimately, 40-42 overall.
If we take this as fact, it renders Dallas an essential non-factor. The Lakers would be free to worry about the Jazz alone.
Los Angeles, of all teams, knows it doesn't work that way. Those are just calculations; they're crafted numbers. If the Lakers bought into them, they would be acknowledging they are heading for the lottery, like those same numbers originally suggested they would.
The message then?
Don't count out Dirk Nowitzki and friends.
What It All Means
None of these three teams plays more than eight games to close out the season, yet there are plenty of complex scenarios still in play.
Los Angeles has a difficult schedule ahead, mostly against teams it hasn't proved it can beat on a regular basis. Though Basketball-Reference has the Lakers finishing 4-3 and ultimately clinching a playoff berth, nothing is etched in stone.
Which team will grab the Western Conference's final playoff spot?
Fittingly enough, the Lakers' road to the postseason goes through playoff teams. If they wish to beat the initial odds and actualize the current numbers, they need to beat the same type of aggregates they'll face in the postseason.
Bear in mind that there are absolutely zero opportunities for this team to make up any ground. Not merely because the Lakers have just seven games to play, but because none of those bouts come against the Jazz or Mavericks.
From here on, it's about stealing victories from teams they've yet to unseat or beat consistently.
Games against the Blazers and Hornets are important as well, but it's contests against the Grizzlies, Clippers, Warriors, Spurs and Rockets that will define Los Angeles' season.
It's those games that will prolong the Lakers' campaign as planned, or bring it to a screeching halt.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports, 82games.com and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.