The Los Angeles Lakers are back in a more familiar place — the team being chased rather than the team playing catch-up. Granted, the Lakers aren’t really used to being chased for the eighth seed, but still it’s better to be the team being chased than the other way around.
Both the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz are two games back of the Lakers for the chance to face the Spurs in the first round.
Can either of those teams catch the Lakers? Maybe. Dallas is playing well and Utah’s schedule softens up, but both are going to need a lot more wins.
Dallas is 7-3 in its last 10 games and have pushed up the standings since he return of Dirk Nowitzki. While it seemed a long shot they could get back in the mix, the fall of the Jazz has put them just a couple steps behind the Lakers.
The reason we are talking about this at all is Utah has not looked like a playoff team lately — they have lost four games in a row and nine of their last 11. They were a playoff team that came back to the pack, let themselves get caught.
Players in Utah are frustrated — Paul Millsap has complained about playing time — and coach Ty Corbin can’t seem to find a rotation, a combination to turn this thing around. Two games is not going to be easy to make up on the Lakers, but it’s impossible if they don’t start winning. A lot.
Utah’s best hope is the schedule — theirs gets softer while the Lakers gets harder. Dallas has a tough stretch but could finish strong.
Utah has 12 games left, eight at home where the Jazz are 24-9 on the season. Of those dozen games, only five are against playoff teams. The Jazz have the struggling 76ers and Suns to start the week in Utah — those are must wins that could start a little run for Utah.
Dallas has a dozen games left, seven at home and five on the road. They play seven of those 12 against playoff teams but five of those are their next five games (including at the Lakers April 2). If Dallas can get through those five games and still be close, they have a chance.
The Lakers have 12 games left also, split evenly between home and road (with a four-game road trip this week). The Lakers have seven playoff teams left on their schedule including four of their last six. The Lakers had a soft schedule last week of the Suns and Wizards and lost both, a missed opportunity they could regret.
The bottom line for the Lakers is they have a cushion, they have to just keep winning and they are in. (It’s hard to see any of these teams closing a three game gap with the hot Rockets for the seven seed, or 3.5 with the Warriors at six.) But if the Lakers continue to stumble the schedule favors Utah — if Utah can keep tripping over it’s own feet. And Dallas is in the mix as well.
This could be a very interesting three weeks at the bottom of the Western Conference.