Playoff picture: Lakers clawing for berth
by Adi Joseph, USA TODAY Sports
The Los Angeles Lakers look like a playoff team, from the superstar-loaded roster to the 25-point comebacks to the Kobe Bryant guarantees. But the West is a mess, and the conference’s pre-eminent franchise remains on the outside.
Bryant’s playoff guarantee is two weeks old, but it already looks pretty good. The Lakers are 6-2 since the All-Star break, coming out with the type of energy and ability expected when they added Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in the offseason. But they remain 1½ games back for the eighth seed, rising into a four-team scrap for the Western Conference’s three final playoff spots.
The four teams each fill a distinct niche in this season’s only viable playoff race: the Golden State Warriors (35-27) as the slipping overachievers, the Houston Rockets (33-29) as the meshing young gunners, the Utah Jazz (32-29) as the steady, savvy veterans and the Lakers (31-31) as the stars trying to align. Los Angeles has an enviable hot streak and the know-how to win any playoff series, but they have to squeeze by one of the other three contenders first.
The Eastern Conference is more settled, with eight teams still jostling for position and the hope of avoiding the Miami Heat for as long as possible. So all eyes turn to the West and the season’s favorite soap opera. The Lakers play the Warriors twice and Rockets once.
“It’s not a question of if we make the playoffs. We will,” Bryant told Sports Illustrated last month. But Bryant may not be able to control that.
Here’s an in-depth look at the playoff picture, in USA TODAY Sports’ new bi-weekly NBA bubble watch:
Locks (6): Miami Heat, New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets, Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls
The East remains weak, with a pretty strong dividing line between the top eight teams and the rest of the pack. These six teams, in particular, having little to worry about. The Heat could lose LeBron James and Dwyane Wade for the rest of the season and still salvage the No. 1 seed with a 7½-game lead on the Knicks, who will fight it out with … [For more on NBA playoff picture: Lakers still clawing for berth, click here.]