While the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference are basically settled, there’s still a great deal of mystery about that spot in the Western Conference. The Los Angeles Lakers, the Utah Jazz, and the Dallas Mavericks all have reasonable shots to get in for a likely first round matchup with the San Antonio Spurs or the Oklahoma City Thunder. But which team will nab the eighth seed?
Los Angeles Lakers: Currently 8th seed, 37-36, 9 games left (6 home, 3 away)
It’s absurd to even think that this team is struggling to stay in the playoffs with less than ten games to go. If someone told me before the season, after they obtained Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, that the Lakers would be in a fight for the eighth seed in the West, I wouldn’t have believed them, or would have imagined that there were season-ending injuries to some of their stars. And I would be wrong. Somehow, a team with six All-Stars has not looked like they were very good at basketball for most of the season. Their remaining schedule is very home heavy, with six home games and one of their “road” games being played in Los Angeles (against the Clippers), which should give them a better shot to pick up enough wins to get the eighth seed. But their opposition includes five current playoff teams and the Mavericks, who are also gunning for the eighth seed. In order to maintain their hold on the last spot, they’ll need to play some of their best basketball of the season without F Metta World Peace, perhaps the team’s best perimeter defender, who just had knee surgery.
Utah Jazz: Currently 9th (1/2 game back), 36-36, 10 games remaining (6 home, 4 away)
Since the trade deadline, when the Jazz decided to keep both Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap rather than trade one for backcourt help and to open up minutes for Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, the Jazz have gone 5-12 and now sit behind the Lakers for the eighth seed, after holding that position for much of the season. Their remaining schedule isn’t as tough as the Lakers’, with five remaining games against already lottery-bound teams, but considering how they’ve played recently, even wins in those games won’t come easily. They should win those games, and possibly pick up a win at home against the Brooklyn Nets and/or the Denver Nuggets, but there’s truly no telling how they’ll come out in any of these games.
Dallas Mavericks: Currently 10th (1 1/2 games back), 35-37, 10 games remaining (5 home, 5 away)
Since entering the All-Star break at 23-29, the Mavericks have gone 12-8, including 10-5 in the month of March. They’ve been clearly playing their best in this stretch, cresting in their 109-102 OT win on Tuesday night against the Los Angeles Clippers. However, they took a 25-point blitzing last night against the Indiana Pacers that kept the beards they’re growing until they reach .500 again. Despite not having the home advantage the Lakers or Jazz do, they still have a good shot to win most of their games, with 5 games against lottery teams, home games against their toughest opponents, and a chance to beat the Lakers again.
Considering the Lakers have the lead, get to play seven more games at home and have Pau Gasol healthy, they should end up with the eighth seed. It would be unimagineable for Kobe and the Lakers to spend the playoffs at home, but considering that the Lakers have a losing record with Gasol in the lineup, them finishing the season 4-5 or worse really wouldn’t be that surprising. If I had to predict, I’d say that the eighth seed will go to the Mavericks, as they genuinely look like they’re playing better than the Jazz or Lakers are at this time, with a less demanding schedule than the Lakers have. After such a tumultuous season for all these teams, however, nothing would shock me.