Including Friday night, there are 13 days left in the NBA’s regular season. There are pitched battles for significant seeds taking place in both conferences – mainly the Eastern one – but we don’t really care about the Eastern Conference, because it is terrible. As such, this scribe is going to look way out West for something interesting, and focus on the two most prominent Seed Fights 2013 in the Western bracket.
Up first? The race for eighth, featuring the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz. The Lakers are currently a half-game up on Utah.
It was entirely appropriate to write off the Utah Jazz a week after St. Patrick’s Day. The team completely hit the skids after a somnambulant trade deadline, responding to the front office’s inaction surrounding free agents to-be Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap with a 3-11 swoon that left the team seemingly out of the playoff hunt, and a distant third behind the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks in the race for the final slot in the West’s top eight.
Following that swoon, and faced with five games against four lottery teams and the often-disappointing Brooklyn Nets, the Jazz responded with five wins in a row. The team clung to the returning Mo Williams and overcoming the loss of Enes Kanter to beat the bums they should have, in the most crucial time of all.
As it usually is, even in an 82-game season, all of the goodwill that the Jazz earned for its rebound was shot to hell in one embarrassing home loss to the Denver Nuggets, a division rival working effortlessly on what should have been enemy turf. The Nuggies prevailed by a 113-96 score, in a manner so unappealing that Yucca Man at SLC Dunk absolutely dismantled the Jazz in a must-read column on the divergent paths of the two squads.
Here’s a snippet, on the Jazz:
Trapped by conservatism, paralyzed by cowardice, coached via incompetence ... that's our team.
Our coach can't even figure who the team's best players are. He doesn't know how to draw up a play, and he doesn't have a plan on defense. He ignores the strengths of 90% of his roster to focus on a skill of one guy ... even though he's not actually that great at post ups.
Our front office hasn't figured out that having four good big guys and no good PG's is ridiculous.
Mo Williams is gutty, and Jamaal Tinsley has massive huevos, but both players are clearly not the long-term answer at the point guard position. Williams played great ball during Utah’s winning streak, hitting over half his shots from the field and averaging 17 points and 6.7 assists along the way; but he missed 10 of 12 shots against the Nuggets.
And Tyrone Corbin’s coaching, on an admittedly mismatched squad that is now working without its only true center, has left quite a bit to be desired this season.
The same could be said for Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, but at least his team has done well to play up to its potential and make the playoffs a possibility in recent months.
The Lakers have disappointed us all season, but to their credit they’ve actually outdone themselves in terms of our own midseason expectations. When evaluating the team’s playoff chances at the season’s halfway mark, we repeatedly pointed out that the Lakers would have to win two-thirds of its games in the second half of the season in order to have a chance at the postseason. And for a squad that was at 17-25 at one point … did this team look like a group that could win two out of every three contests played?
They’ve done it, though, going 22-11 since that 17-25 low point. Steve Nash is still hurting, Kobe Bryant’s vanity plates probably read “CALCIUM DEP” at this point, and Dwight Howard is still a work in progress at both ends, but the team is winning by hook or by crook.
Then again, they’ve let us down before.
Utah has done well to take down teams below them in the standings of late, but contests against the springy New Orleans Hornets and much-improved Minnesota Timberwolves should concern the team’s fans. Utah plays the Timberwolves (who have split their last 10 games, no small feat without Kevin Love around) twice between now and the end of the season, and they’ll have their troubles with the playoff-worthy squads over the next 13 days.
Oklahoma City, Golden State and Memphis (the three playoff teams Utah is set to face) will be jostling for their own playoff seeding, and unlikely to sit stars along the way. This is less than an ideal lineup of contests.
The Lakers entered the season with what seemed like the ideal lineup, and though two starters are currently sidelined and two others (Bryant and Pau Gasol) are working through injury, the team could face a favorable ending to the season.
After all, both San Antonio and Houston could rest their starters, seeding assured, while facing Los Angeles in the final week of the season. Via injury, the Spurs (already without Manu Ginobili) may have no choice in resting Tony Parker, and the Rockets (likely ensconced in that seventh seed) may not care to trot their big guns out on the final night of the season.
This comes after a test, though, as the Lakers take on the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday (without Steve Nash on hand) and the frustrated Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday. And a middling period featuring games against the Hornets, Trail Blazers, and Warriors will provide no sure wins.
The Lakers can grab the final seed by holding serve and keeping the Jazz at the current half-game arm’s length. Utah owns the tie-breaker over Los Angeles, so any matched record would go to Tyrone Corbin’s crew, but with a potentially cheerful final few days to Los Angeles’ season (unless Houston coach and former Laker combatant Kevin McHale wants to play spoiler), it may not matter.
The Lakers may have the tougher schedule on paper, but do you trust these Jazz to make up that half-game and move beyond? It’s a tough call, considering that the Jazz seem as inconsistent as these Lakers in a number of ways, but without the soul-crushing star-power to overcome that.
Again, Los Angeles has teased before, but this seems like their seed to take.
(Don’t tell the Lakers that, though. They don’t appear to play well when faced with lofty expectations. And by “lofty,” we mean “an eighth seed.”)