Brace yourselves, NBA fans. The playoffs are coming, and there are officially two teams left on the bubble.
With the exception of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Utah Jazz, every playoff team has been decided. The Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors are in, the Dallas Mavericks are out and this has officially become a two-man race with less than a week remaining in the regular season.
With the Mavs' April 10 loss to the lowly Phoenix Suns, the team from Dallas has been eliminated from playoff contention, marking the first time in 12 years that it won't be participating in the postseason. The Milwaukee Bucks clinched their all-but-assumed appearance on April 6, and the Rockets and Warriors nabbed their spots soon after.
It's down to the Jazz and the Lakers, and the race couldn't be much tighter. Both have three games left, and both need every win they can get.
Los Angeles Lakers: 48.5 Percent
With three games left in their schedule, the Lakers look like a desperate team. That may sound like an insult on the surface, but it's a look that fits them as they're winning close games in true postseason fashion.
In a 113-106 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on April 10, Kobe Bryant played arguably his best game of the season. He scored 47 points—a Rose Garden record by an opponent (according to ESPN)—in 48 minutes. The superstar isn't slowing down one bit, and if there's anyone who can will a team to victory, it's that man right there.
The final three contests are all against playoff opponents. The Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Rockets are up next, and the only upside is that they're all at home.
Can the Lakers win these games? You bet they can. They're motivated, they're closing out contests and they know that a spot in the playoffs would be a start to making up for the lackadaisical play they showed early.
Whether they’re winning or losing, the Lakers have grabbed headlines throughout the 2012-13 season. With the playoffs approaching, nothing has changed in that sense, as everybody wants to know if this team is able to make an improbable run.
If one thing is for sure, it’s that the Lakers haven’t made life easy on themselves. The roster has been short-handed most of the year and defense hasn't always looked like a priority, but if they win out with their tough schedule, they make the playoffs regardless of how Utah finishes.
Utah Jazz: 51.5 Percent
The Jazz have two things going for them with the playoffs in sight. First, they have the luxury of playing the Minnesota Timberwolves twice in their final three games. They’ve taken down the Wolves two times already, and they even have a win against a tough Memphis Grizzlies squad—their final opponent of the year.
The other thing that Utah has going for it is the tiebreak over the Lakers. Utah won the season series, so if it comes down to a tie with L.A., the Jazz are in while the Lakers are out.
Utah has been a bit perplexing in the sense that it blocks the fourth-most shots per game, yet it is just outside the bottom 10 when it comes to points allowed in the paint (according to teamrankings.com). This has a lot to do with perimeter defense breaking down, which could be a problem against Ricky Rubio and Mike Conley.
Without Enes Kanter in the lineup, Utah’s frontcourt has taken a hit. However, its lineup was deep as it came at the power forward and center positions. The loss of Kanter hurts the team in the case of a long playoff run, but a three-game stretch at the end of the year appears to be a reasonable time frame to assert a three-man attack.
When it comes down to it, the schedule is the biggest reason Utah has the edge. The tiebreaker is helpful, to say the least, but having two winnable games is more than L.A. can claim at this juncture.
The Lakers may have the more talented team, but they made life difficult on themselves through injuries and early-season struggles. Nobody wants it more than L.A.'s starting 2-guard, but the odds are stacked against him and his team as the 2012-13 season officially winds down.