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Look out, Lakers: Breaking down the race for the West’s eighth seed

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Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Millsap, Kobe Bryant (Getty Images)

In one week’s work, time off that should have been spent resting the old bones of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, the Los Angeles Lakers have been blown out by the Phoenix Suns, they blew what should have been a decisive win at home against the Washington Wizards, and they should have been blown out by the Golden State Warriors on Monday. The Warriors loss was especially galling. Los Angeles played terrible defense and impatient offense and only made a game of it late once the young Warriors weirdly decided to stop running after misses.

Seven days, three losses, and suddenly the lower part of the West’s playoff bracket is worth paying attention to. The rolling Houston Rockets are in no danger of falling out of seventh place, so it will come down to the perplexing Lakers, the improving Dallas Mavericks, and the frustrating Utah Jazz for that final spot in the West. The Lakers currently hold the last spot, up a game on Utah and a game and a half on Dallas, but as we’ve learned dozens of times during this odd 2012-13 season, anything can happen with Los Angeles. Anything that’s mostly awful.

Can anything happen with Dallas or Utah? Let’s figure this out.

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Dallas Mavericks

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Vince Carter, still got it (Getty Images)

It’s been another strange run for Dallas, though this is the first one in 14 years that could result in a trip to the lottery.

Unofficially put on hold in December of 2011 as it searched for a star to pair with Dirk Nowitzki, the team has weathered bad luck in dancing school on its way to a few free-agent misses, while maintaining cap space and .500 hopes all along the way. The team made the playoffs last season while retaining that payroll flexibility, only to be swept in the first round. There’s been no such repeat this year, though. With Nowitzki needing until late December to return from injury and early January to find his groove, the Mavericks were forced to wait out the first 36 games of the season before putting together a 21-13 tear to get where they are now.

Where they are now is a game and a half in back of Los Angeles, starting a lineup that essentially features three lanky power forwards (Nowitzki, Brandan Wright, and Shawn Marion) and two hybrid guards in O.J. Mayo and Mike James. Combinations featuring heavy minutes for early starters Chris Kaman and Darren Collison haven’t worked, as Kaman struggles mightily on defense and Collison can seemingly only score on transition lay-ups with nobody around, and the team has gone through myriad lineups just as an attempt to weather the Nowitzki-less storm.

[Also: NBA Power Rankings: Heat are chasing history]

Dirk Nowitzki, of late, has gone off. He’s made 52 percent of his shots overall and 47 percent of his three-pointers in March and he’s missed just one free throw all month, but his low usage (13.1 shots per game, 2.8 free throws a contest) is frustrating to behold. Nevertheless, as it was in April, a disparate roster with Rick Carlisle pulling the strings intrigues. And despite that game and a half handicap, it can’t be overlooked that Dallas is playing the best ball, by far, of any of the three teams vying for that final spot.

What stands in the way is the team’s tough schedule. Dallas did well to make itself relevant again, but it may not have the pop to vault past Los Angeles.

It begins Tuesday night, with a game in Dallas against the Clippers. Indiana and Chicago visit Dallas next, and it’s nice that they’re visiting Dallas, but they’re still Indiana and Chicago, two tough teams. From there, the squad has four games against current playoff teams, including what should be a season-tilting contest in Los Angeles against the Lakers on April 2, and five against lottery dwellers. Two of those contests come against the New Orleans Hornets, who appear to be taking on the role of spoiler with great aplomb.

In all, more winners than losers on the horizon. Tough news, for a team that at the absolute least has to finish 8-4 against a schedule with five lottery teams and seven current bracket participants. Dallas has lost twice in three games to Los Angeles this season, needing a win on April’s second day to avoid losing the tiebreaker to the Lakers. At least, the easy, non-convoluted conference record tiebreaker.

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Los Angeles Lakers

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Mike D'Antoni, still got it (Getty Images)

The Los Angeles Lakers should be embarrassed to be in this spot. Hubris, lack of intensity, poor choices and disparate agendas have resulted in a team that is one loss away from moving back to .500 some five months into the season. It’s true that a top-heavy team full of injury-prone players with significant age concerns always had the potential to bottom out entering 2012-13 … but this team has bottomed out. The Lakers could finish the year with two All-NBA first team participants and zero playoff games.

In a season full of missteps, the last seven days should act as the most shameful. Los Angeles was not ready to take on a terrible Phoenix team that it clearly underestimated, Kobe Bryant’s defense in the losses to Washington and Golden State was abominable, and Dwight Howard could barely be bothered to move his feet in his team’s defeat against the Warriors on Monday night.

Because of a 19-7 run prior to this current swoon, the Lakers currently own the eighth spot. And the team may have the easiest record from here on out, playing five current lottery teams up against six playoff teams. It’s true that the Lakers can’t be bothered to down the Wizards and Suns these days, but those playoff teams include a reeling Milwaukee Bucks squad, the Memphis Grizzlies potentially without Marc Gasol in the lineup, and Spurs and Rockets outfits that might be in shutdown mode with their playoff status assured in the final week of the season.

[Also: Rockets rookie Royce White slated to return to D-League]

It’s OK to grit your teeth as you read this. After a summer of defying the basketball gods and backing into Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, sending exactly zero games of Andrew Bynum out along the way, forces could conspire in the season’s final three weeks to send the Lakers through the screen of the backdoor of the playoffs. Just go ahead and shake that fist at James Naismith.

(And, possibly, giddily rub your hands together for a Spurs/Lakers first-round battle.)

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Utah Jazz

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Tyrone Corbin, still got it (Getty Images)

The Jazz are an absolute mess. The team’s defense, currently stuck at 21st in the NBA, has been rotten all season. Recently, though, a team that was put together to feature the offense-first talents of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap has fallen off considerably on that end, dipping out of the top ten offensively and turning the Jazz into a long shot for the playoffs. Rough going, for a group that stood at 31-24 after downing the similarly-bracketed Golden State Warriors in their first game after the All-Star break.

It was the next week’s trade deadline, and not the All-Star break, that did Utah in. The team is full of free agents, with nobody (in Utah, and out of it) knowing exactly what the team will attempt to do this summer with free agents Jefferson and Millsap, and the team declined to deal either player at the deadline. In a way the squad shocked the NBA by declining to trade one or both for lasting compensation.

Understandable, as the market wasn’t clamoring to give up much for unrestricted free agents to be, and considering that Utah hit its high water mark in the week before the trade deadline. Even without that, the flexibility behind such inaction may eventually pay off. For now, though, this is a team in steep decline. And it’s hard not to look at the impermanent nature of the players in the 2013 free-agent class as a reason why. From Jody Genessy at the Deseret News:

"Once the trade deadline was over and everybody realized we were going to be this way for the rest of the year, I think we relaxed a little bit," Corbin said of his team that was 3-11 since that deadline before Monday's 107-91 win over the 76ers.

"It may have worn on us a little bit, just the mentioning of it, the presence of it all year long and everything staying the same. It may have affected us some."

[…]

"You have so many guys on the same mode it affects your overall play a little bit," Corbin said. "To these guys' credit, I think for the most part all year long they've been focused on trying to control what they can control, and that's how they're playing right now."

[Watch: Should Bulls push for Derrick Rose’s return?]

OK, that last part didn’t make sense (Corbin was speaking before the team beat Philadelphia), but it’s obvious what is going on. The team needed to play to near perfection offensively, relatively speaking, to make up for its slow defensive footspeed at all positions. Lately, the focus and execution isn’t there, along with curious rotation choices from Corbin. And the team’s front office may be using this season, especially its final two months, as a training camp for who stays and who goes. Corbin included.

The team still has a chance, just a game back of the Lakers. The Suns and Portland are up next, followed by a trip to Brooklyn that will probably see former Jazz guard Deron Williams take in the neighborhood of 97 shots from the floor. April features five home games to three road contests, but even the easier opponents (at home against Portland, to New Orleans, to Minnesota) are teams we could easily see topping Utah even at the team’s mid-February peak.

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It feels like the Lakers are our pick, pals. Then again, we said that in October, didn’t we?

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