By far the most interesting storyline as the season closes is whether the Lakers can sneak past the Utah Jazz into the eighth seed in the West. Although they only have one remaining road game, they have to play the Trail Blazers, Spurs, Warriors and Rockets, four teams ranging from decent to elite. Utah, meanwhile, does not have an easy schedule either, having to play the Thunder and the Grizzlies. I think that in the end the Jazz will narrowly avoid elimination (well, at least until the first round of the playoffs). The Lakers have simply had too much of an inconsistent year to be expected to perform at a reliably high level these last few games. Hopefully, if the Los Angeles Lakers do not reach the playoffs, ESPN can focus on the playoffs and abandon its love affair with the Lakers (at least until the offseason). Another side note: keeping in mind the enormous hype they received at the beginning of the year, if the Lakers fail to reach the playoffs it would probably be one of the biggest team disappointments that the sporting world has seen in recent memory.
Another important playoff race involves the Spurs and Thunder: which team will grab the coveted one seed? Getting the one seed would mean avoiding the Houston Rockets in the first round, who have shocked just about everyone with their high level of play this year. Even though the one seed might potentially play the Lakers, I actually hold Houston in a much higher regard due to their consistent level of play and its amazing offense (which, if it gets hot, could carry them through a seven game series). After Oklahoma City’s tough home loss to the Knicks, it looks like the ailing Spurs will hold on to the one seed. If that remains the case, I would not be shocked to see a first round upset with Utah or Los Angeles beating the Spurs. Even though that is extremely unlikely, the Spurs have been pretty banged up lately, and as we saw in 2011, they are prone to big upsets.
Unlike the Western Conference, pretty much everything is set for the playoffs in the East. The Knicks’ recent resurgence (especially their win in Oklahoma City) has delivered a message to the Heat that their trip through the relatively weak East might not be a cakewalk. They have played so well, in fact, that I might (just maybe) reconsider my pick for the Heat to come out of the Eastern Conference. I’ll leave my predictions for next week, however.