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Lakers' path to playoffs crystallizes in battle with Jazz for No. 8 seed

(Noah Graham/Getty Images) The Jazz are standing between Kobe Bryant's Lakers and the playoffs. (Noah Graham/Getty Images)

By Ben Golliver

As the NBA season approaches its final week, there's good news and bad news for the Lakers as they continue their push toward the Western Conference's No. 8 seed. The good news: their competition has officially been reduced to a single team, the Jazz. The bad news: the Jazz have continued to finish strong and possess a crucial tie-breaker, two factors that together have pushed the Lakers to a point where mistakes are no longer just costly, they are fatal.

In the week since we last checked in on the state of the race for the No. 8 seed, the Lakers went 2-1, defeating the Mavericks to push them out of the postseason conversation and clawing past the Grizzlies before losing to the Clippers on Sunday to fall to 0-4 against the crosstown division rival on the season. That loss was one-half of a "Bloody Sunday" for the Lakers, as the Jazz put the finishing touches on a very solid 3-1 week with a surprise road win against the Warriors in Oakland.

Together, those results moved Utah back into the No. 8 seed with a half-game lead over L.A. Because the Jazz hold a head-to-head tiebreaker against the Lakers by virtue of beating them two out of three times this season, the Lakers will need to finish with a better record than the Jazz to qualify for the postseason. While the two most popular projection models are currently split on who will prevail -- Basketball-Reference.com has L.A. as a slight favorite while ESPN.com likes Utah in nearly 60 percent of its simulations -- the combination of Sunday's two results makes life exceedingly more difficult for the Lakers as they approach their final five games.

What's in store over the next 10 days for these two teams and what does it mean for Kobe Bryant's famous playoff guarantee? Let's take a look.

How did they get here?

The past week saw two major developments.

First, the Mavericks lost a do-or-die game against the Lakers in L.A., and have now dropped to 2.5 games behind the Jazz with just five games to play. Because Utah holds a tie-breaker over Dallas, the Mavericks are all but eliminated, even though it's not yet mathematically official. The Mavericks were always outside shots at best, given their slow start, and their departure simplifies the playing field for the Lakers and Jazz.

Second, and this cannot be stressed enough, the Jazz outperformed expectations by going 3-1 last week. As a team that has struggled all year away from home, holding a 12-27 road record, Utah's surprising defeat of the Warriors meaningfully expanded their margin of error -- and shrank the Lakers' -- the rest of the way.

Last week, we noted that the most plausible scenario that would see the Lakers advance would require them to finish with 44 wins, topping Utah at 43. By beating Golden State, Utah now only needs to sweep the lowly Timberwolves to reach 43 wins. Should the Jazz again outperform expectations by beating the Thunder at home on Tuesday, the Lakers would be facing what amounts to a "win-or-die" reality in their final five games. Even if Oklahoma City prevails, though, the Lakers are now in a position where anything less than a 4-1 finish almost certainly won't be good enough.

That's a tall, frustrating order for a Lakers team that has outpaced the Jazz in a number of advanced statistical measurements this season. The chart below compares the two teams’ rankings for offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency and MAR (average point differential). The teams’ playoff odds in both the Basketball-Reference.com and ESPN.com models are listed at the right.

lakers-playoff-1

The Lakers continue to post better efficiency numbers on both sides of the ball than the Jazz. The Lakers' +0.90 average margin of victory actually outpaces six playoff teams, including the Jazz, while Utah's (-0.05) is improving but still only tops two playoff teams, the Celtics and Bucks. Just like last week, if those top-down numbers were the only pieces of information available, L.A. would be the narrow, but clear pick to advance. Instead, Utah plugs along as the well-positioned plucky underdog.

Momentum?

The Jazz and Lakers are neck-and-neck milers, both kicking hard as they enter the final 100 meters. The Lakers are 10-6 over the last month and 4-2 in their last six while the Jazz are 7-1 over their last eight games. Here's a chart that compares the two teams' winning percentages throughout this season (win percentage on the y-axis, game log along the x-axis). The Jazz have inched narrowly ahead after ceding the lead for a stretch in March that probably already feels like an eternity ago for both teams.

lakers-playoffs-3

Zooming in on the last 20 games gives a better visual sense for the impact of Utah's 7-1 push over their last eight.

lakers-playoffs-4

Hats off to the Jazz, who stared a breaking point in the face and responded with their most successful stretch of the season. Five of the seven wins came against lottery teams -- Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland twice, and New Orleans -- but that success stands in contrast to the Lakers, who dropped crucial games to Phoenix and Washington in mid-March.

The Schedules

What's left? The following chart compares the remaining games for the Jazz and Lakers, noting how many projected playoff and lottery opponents are on the schedule. Remaining home games, away games and back-to-backs are also noted, as is remaining strength of schedule (average winning percentage of opponents remaining).

lakers-playoffs-2

There isn't much separating the two schedules, as both include two weak games. The Lakers pocket some points for the extra home games but give a little back by getting stuck with a back-to-back and an extra playoff opponent. Here's a game-by-game rundown of the two teams' remaining schedules.

Utah Jazz

vs. Thunder: Oklahoma City leads season series 2-1

vs. Timberwolves: Utah leads season series 2-0

at Timberwolves: Utah leads season series 2-0

at Grizzlies: Memphis leads season series 2-1

Los Angeles Lakers

vs. Hornets: L.A. leads season series 3-0

at Blazers: L.A. leads season series 2-1

vs. Warriors: Golden State leads season series 2-1

vs. Spurs: San Antonio leads season series 2-0

vs. Rockets: Houston leads season series 2-1

There's a lot to like about the Lakers' remaining schedule, and a few points of caution. First, the home/road balance sharply favors the Lakers, who are 25-12 at home this season. The road game at Portland is not nearly as daunting as it might appear: the Blazers have lost eight straight games, including seven by double-digits, and have two key starters -- Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews -- dealing with injuries. Put it this way: a loss in Portland would likely end L.A.'s playoff hopes, and any team dropping a game to these Blazers with their postseason life on the line doesn't deserve to advance.

The Hornets game, similarly, should be a cupcake. New Orleans is just 11-27 on the road this season and is currently tied for the second-worst record overall in the West. The Lakers are a combined 5-1 against New Orleans and Portland this season, with the only loss coming to the Blazers in Portland all the way back on Halloween. Those two should be victories and would put L.A. at 42-37 on the season, possibly giving them the one-game lead on the Jazz that they need if Oklahoma City defeats Utah on Tuesday night.

Once the Portland game passes, though, the uncertainty and difficulty kick up several notches. The Lakers will be facing three consecutive games against playoff-bound teams who all remain in meaningful races for playoff seeding. The Warriors hold just a one-game lead for the No. 6 seed on the Rockets, who have a cushy closing schedule. That all but guarantees Golden State will be at full strength when the Lakers play host on Friday night and suggests that Houston could also be in a position to play all of their guys during next week's season finale against L.A.

The Spurs, meanwhile, are just one game up for the West's No. 1 on the Thunder, who hold a tie-breaker between the two teams. San Antonio's Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have been ruled out of a game this Wednesday and that could continue, as coach Gregg Popovich generally keeps the big picture in mind late in the season. If one of these three opponents is likely to be meaningfully shorthanded against the Lakers, it's San Antonio. There's one more wrinkle, though: if San Antonio maintains its hold on the No. 1 seed, they could be in a position to play Parker against the Lakers in hopes of defeating L.A. and setting themselves up with a first-round rematch against the Jazz, whom they swept convincingly in 2012.

One would assume that Oklahoma City will be at full strength against Utah on Tuesday as it fights for the No. 1 seed and homecourt advantage, leaving the Jazz's season finale against the Grizzlies as the only wild card left on their schedule. The race for 3-4-5 in the West hasn't opened up significantly -- Memphis trails Denver by just one game -- making it feasible that the season finale has playoff implications for the Grizzlies. At least for now, Utah must assume that they won't be getting any freebies during their final four games.

External Factors

Which opponents choose to play their biggest stars, and when, remains the biggest variable, but the Lakers' injury problems are a close second.

Metta World Peace announced Monday that he would return to the court less than two weeks after knee surgery, a risky-sounding proposition, while Steve Nash has played just two total minutes over the last four games with a hip/hamstring injury. Those absences have pushed coach Mike D'Antoni to a seven-man rotation, and Bryant has played at least 43 minutes in each of L.A.'s last four games. Could that heavy minutes load catch up to him, even if only for one game? Remember, L.A.'s margin for error is razor thin. One off night from Bryant could be the difference between advancing and not.

Can The Lakers Deliver?

The split opinion between the two major projection systems is a sign of just how tight this race remains, but after Sunday, the Lakers' path has crystallized. Here's a scenario-by-scenario look at the Lakers' fate.

Go 5-0 to finish 45-37: Sweeping out isn't outside the realm of possibility for the Lakers, thanks to two weak opponents, homecourt advantage and the possibility that an opponent or opponents come in short-handed during the season's final week. Still, they've managed just one five-game winning streak all season. That was back in December and it included three teams -- the Wizards, Sixers and Bobcats -- that are headed for the lottery. If they do win out, the Jazz would also need to win out -- going 4-0 the rest of the way -- to advance on the tie-breaker.

Go 4-1 to finish 44-38: Last week, this seemed like the most plausible path to the postseason and it remains so. Getting to four wins now involves simply taking care of business against the Hornets and Blazers and winning two out of three against the Warriors, Spurs and Rockets. If San Antonio sits Parker and Houston's playoff seeding is settled on the final night of the season, 4-1 doesn't sound too daunting at all. Utah's win against Golden State complicates this scenario, as mentioned, because they now need to go just 3-1, with two gimme games against Minnesota, to advance on the tie-breaker.

Go 3-2 to finish 43-39: As recently as last week, this type of finish could have existed as a "just barely good enough" possibility to squeak into the postseason. Now? It would seem very unlikely, as Utah would need only beat the Timberwolves twice to advance on the tie-breaker. It's worth reiterating that Utah is 2-0 against Minnesota this season. Had the Lakers beaten the Clippers and added another win to their stockpile, a 3-2 finish in their final five would have had a much better shot at being enough to get a leg up on the Jazz. That milk is now spilled.

Go 2-3 to finish 42-40: A middling finish for the Lakers will almost certainly mean playoff elimination, perhaps wrapping up L.A.'s season before the finale. Utah would need to win just one game to advance on the tie-breaker in this scenario.

Go 1-4 to finish 41-41 or 0-5 to finish 40-46: It's exceedingly unlikely that L.A. would fall apart this badly. If it happened, doom, obviously.

Summarizing this neatly, L.A.'s task is clear: finish at least 4-1 or start booking the offseason vacations. If Utah beats Oklahoma City on Tuesday, then the bar jumps up to 5-0.
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