Will Kobe and the Lakers be able to hold off the Utah Jazz?
With only a handful of games remaining, the situation is growing desperate for the remaining teams on the NBA postseason bubble.
Anything can happen in the rest of the schedule. After five-plus months of basketball, we have a very good sense of what each team is capable of. When the fate of the season can be swung in just a few games, however, all those preconceived notions go out the window.
Though most of the league is more concerned about first-round opponents or offseason reevaluations at this point, the playoff race keeps going until the bitter end. For the handful of teams still fighting hope to prolong their seasons, they're looking at a tough stretch ahead.
Funny thing about the Eastern Conference this season: There's absolutely no fringe postseason race of which to speak.
The Miami Heat have been playoff bound for ages, of course, but even the sub-.500 Milwaukee Bucks have already locked up a postseason berth.
Blame Andrew Bynum's crumbling knees for the anticlimax in the East. Had the Philadelphia 76ers' prized center not missed the entire season, they certainly wouldn't be sitting six games behind the Bucks in ninth place.
So there's no do-or-die race to follow in the East as the season winds down. Let's move along; nothing to see here.
Out West, the once-jumbled playoff picture is beginning to clear up.
The established powers haven't had to worry about their odds of making the playoffs; the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs have been entirely focused on their battle for the West's top seed.
Meanwhile, upstarts like the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors finally earned their hard-fought playoff berths with just four games remaining apiece.
Though it's no surprise to see Houston or Golden State move on at this late date, both of these teams seemed destined for the lottery back when the season tipped off. That means some presumed playoff teams are still working for the eighth and final spot left in the Western Conference.
Another veteran team that was left for dead earlier in the year, the Dallas Mavericks' comeback is falling just short.
They're 2.5 games back of the Lakers with five to play, but the Mavs are on the wrong side of head-to-head tiebreakers with both L.A. and Utah.
At least those games are manageable—one against the Phoenix Suns, two against the New Orleans Hornets and one apiece versus the hobbled Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies. That said, Dallas is going to have to win out and hope its rivals win no more than once in order to leap into eighth.
Led by Dirk Nowitzki and coached by Rick Carlisle, you can't count Dallas out entirely for such a short stretch. Even if the Mavs did sweep their remaining schedule, though, the odds of them getting the help they need make this one a shot in the dark.
Sitting a game back of the Lakers in the loss column, the Utah Jazz need to muscle their way back into the eighth spot.
With three games left—a home-and-home against the Minnesota Timberwolves before the season finale against the Memphis Grizzlies—Utah has to lean on its bruising post offense in order to take at least two of them.
Utah has Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors to attack a couple of opponents with depleted frontcourts. Unfortunately, that group has been lousy at keeping opponents out of the paint on the defensive end—meaning the Jazz will have trouble containing Ricky Rubio or stopping Memphis' interior passing.
If the Jazz win out, the eighth seed is very likely theirs; Utah holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over Los Angeles. That's a definite long-shot outcome, though. It will be contingent on how hard the hopeless T'wolves and resting Grizzlies play, but Utah is going to need at least two wins to have a chance at moving on.
It didn't look like the Los Angeles Lakers would overcome their dysfunction, but talent has ultimately won out.
Since bottoming out at 17-25 on Jan. 23, Kobe Bryant and company have gone 24-12, surging back into the playoff picture and taking a half-game lead over the Utah Jazz with four games remaining.
The good news for the Lakers is that they control their destiny and have only one road game remaining—a winnable one against the Portland Trail Blazers at that. On the other hand, they do host playoff teams—the Warriors, Spurs and Rockets—in their final three home games.
Two more wins could be enough to secure the eighth seed for Los Angeles. That's doable with the Lakers' remaining schedule. Things could get dicey if L.A. needs better than a split to play on, but this team has the skill to pull it off.