How L.A. Lakers Match Up Against Every Potential Conference Playoff Opponent
Brett Deering/Getty Images
The Los Angeles Lakers are three games away from the finish line as they cling desperately to the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot.
It won't be easy, as L.A. must vanquish three conference foes who have already clinched playoff berths, but the challenge will only get steeper come the postseason.
If by some tremendous fortune the Lakers advance past that, they would face the winner of the No. 4-5 matchup. The final seeding is yet to be determined. Any one of the Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies or Los Angeles Clippers could be in that slot.
We could keep going, but let's not go too crazy. Even advancing to the second round would be a big upset for the Purple and Gold.
Here's how the Lakers match up against their potential conference opponents in the first two rounds of the postseason.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Harry How/Getty Images
Currently, the Oklahoma City Thunder hold the top spot in the Western Conference standings. If the season ended today, they would host the Lakers in round one.
If that scenario comes to pass, it would be the third time in four years that the Lakers and Thunder squared off in the postseason.
Oklahoma City dispatched L.A. in five games in 2012 and took three out of the four in the regular season. They are the only team in the league ranked in the top five in offensive and defensive efficiency. They have the best point differential and outscore opponents by about 11 points per 100 possessions, easily topping the NBA.
Obviously, the key to beating the Thunder is to limit the damage done by their two superstars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Both players have torched the Lakers this year, combining to average better than 63 points per game in the four regular-season meetings.
The youth and pace of OKC would overwhelm the Lakers. There's just too much of an advantage in speed and athleticism.
Kevin Pelton of ESPN.com gives the Lakers a 4.5 percent chance of advancing past the Thunder (subscription required).
Honestly, that seems a bit high. L.A. should hope to avoid OKC in the first round.
San Antonio Spurs
Harry How/Getty Images
Pelton's algorithm says that the Lakers have just a 2.5 percent chance (subscription required) to take out the San Antonio Spurs, but that seems too low.
San Antonio has prevailed in both meetings on the season thus far (with one matchup left) but by a combined total of just five points.
Gregg Popovich's squad is a well-oiled machine, but whereas the Thunder can take their game up a level thanks to the talents of their otherworldly superstars, the Spurs don't quite have that capability.
Their stars are older, and as phenomenal as Tim Duncan and Tony Parker have been this season, they can't dominate a game the way a Durant or Westbrook can.
San Antonio will play at a pace much more suitable to the Lakers than OKC, and with Duncan being the Spurs' only good defensive big man, L.A. can exploit their size advantage.
Throw in Manu Ginobili's iffy health and subpar season and the distinct possibility of San Antonio's role players going cold from three-point range, and the Lakers have a puncher's chance of getting past the Spurs.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
In the first tilt between the Lakers and Denver Nuggets this season, L.A. routed Denver by 19 points at home. The next three contests turned out to be quite different.
The Nuggets soundly outplayed the Lakers in their final three meetings to win the season series. They averaged 119 points per game in the three wins.
The Nuggets pushed the Lakers to seven games in the 2012 postseason. Since then Denver has improved and L.A. has regressed.
Even though Denver is without Danilo Gallinari, there's no way the Lakers are winning a game in the Mile High City, where the Nuggets are 36-3 this season.
Denver's pace and energy make L.A. look even older and slower than they are. The Nuggets have multiple defenders to throw at Kobe Bryant, including one of the NBA's premier perimeter stoppers in Andre Iguodala.
Ty Lawson can get anywhere he wants to against the Lakers' porous backcourt defense, and the Lakers can't match up with the Nuggets when George Karl plays his small-ball lineups.
Los Angeles definitely does not want to see Denver in the second round.
Los Angeles Clippers
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
The Los Angeles Clippers just completed their first season-series sweep against the Lakers last weekend. Three of the four wins came by double digits.
Two non-basketball related factors favor the Lakers in a potential round two meeting with the Clippers.
Firstly, there would be no travel, allowing the Lakers' veterans to get extra rest.
Secondly, a bonus to an all-L.A. showdown is that every game would essentially be a home crowd for the Lakers, given the vast majority of basketball fans in Los Angeles support the Purple and Gold.
The play on the court this season suggests that those intangibles don't really matter.
Chris Paul controls the game every second he's on the floor. The Clippers' defense forces more turnovers than any team in the league, which allows them to get out on the break where their athleticism takes over to devastating effect.
The Clips also have the size to contend with the Lakers' front line. DeAndre Jordan has the length and athleticism to challenge Dwight Howard, and Blake Griffin has dominated Pau Gasol head-to-head this season, averaging 21 points per meeting to Gasol's eight.
As nice as a seven-game home series would be for the Lakers, the Clippers are not an opponent they want to draw.
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
A seven-game series against the Memphis Grizzlies is a very unsavory task.
No team in the league plays with as much brutish physicality as the Grizzlies, who grind down opponents with their relentless defensive pressure.
The Grizzlies are, however, the team the Lakers would most want to see in the second round.
Memphis' biggest advantage is its massive front line, but the L.A. can negate that with its own overwhelming size up front.
Also. the Grizzlies play at a snail's pace, so the Lakers' abysmal transition defense will not be sorely exploited. Memphis lacks the shooters to space the floor with as well, which allows L.A. to pack the paint and control the boards even more.
Every game in this series would go down to the wire, but whereas Kobe Bryant is a proven closer, the Grizzlies tend to put the ball in Mike Conley's hands in clutch situations. Advantage Lakers.
The only possible path for the Lakers to sniff the conference finals is to draw the San Antonio Spurs and then the Memphis Grizzlies. Any other combination will likely result in another early exit for L.A.