After 5 1/2 months of basketball, 15 of the NBA's 16 postseason spots are spoken for heading into the final night of the regular season. That leaves one golden ticket up for grabs — the final slot in the Western Conference, which was briefly a three-team race but has largely been a two-team battle between the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz.
Heading into the last night of the season, the 44-37 Lakers hold a one-game lead over 43-38 the Jazz for the West's No. 8 seed. Both teams will be in action tonight. Who's moving on and who's heading home?
If the Jazz lose to the Memphis Grizzlies, the Lakers are in the playoffs and Utah is not.
If the Jazz beat the Grizzlies but the Lakers beat the Houston Rockets, the Lakers are in the playoffs and Utah is not.
If the Jazz beat the Grizzlies and the Lakers lose to the Rockets, Utah will be back in the playoffs for the second straight year and L.A. will miss the postseason for the first time since 2004-05, because Utah holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Lakers by virtue of winning the season series between the two teams, two games to one.
The best the Jazz can finish is No. 8 in the West. However, if the Lakers beat the Rockets, they'll not only make the playoffs, but vault over Houston into the No. 7 spot — while the two teams would have equal 45-37 records and would have tied their season series at two games apiece, the Lakers would finish with a superior record against Western Conference opponents (28-24, compared to Houston's 24-28 mark). This tiebreaker would bump the Lakers up to the No. 7 seed and put Houston at the bottom of the conference bracket.
After a disappointing swoon that saw them lose nine of 12 games from March 1 through March 24 to drop to ninth place in the West, the Jazz have stabilized at the season's most critical juncture, winning nine of their last 11 to give themselves a chance on the season's final day. (They've had other chances, re-taking the lead for No. 8 on March 29 after the Lakers' loss to the Milwaukee Bucks and again on April 7 after the Lakers' loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, but have given back ground with poorly timed but not unexpected losses to the Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder.)
One weird bit of symmetry: During that awful 3-9 stretch and this stirring 9-2 run, the Jazz defense allowed the exact same average number of points per 100 possessions (103.6). There have been some important improvements — Utah's fouling less frequently, which puts opponents on the line less often, and has been turning the ball over way less frequently, which has cut their scores allowed off turnovers by more than five points per 48 minutes — but, by and large, the defense has remained roughly middle-of-the-pack. That means, of course, the Jazz offense has propelled the turnaround ... and it's been a pretty big turnaround.
After spending the first three weeks of March as an eyesore that averaged less than one point per possession and ranked just above the dregs of the NBA (Cleveland, Orlando, Detroit, Minnesota, Charlotte and Phoenix) in offensive efficiency, the Jazz have come roaring back to post the NBA's fifth-most-potent unit over their last 11 games. They've scored an average of 109.8 points per 100 possessions, a mark topped by only the New York Knicks, Thunder, Clippers and Brooklyn Nets. And in a bit of a shift from the inside-out attack the Jazz have long featured, this leap from bottom-of-the-barrel to top-of-the-pops has been sparked largely by much-improved perimeter play.
Yes, center Al Jefferson has bounced back from a dire five weeks after the All-Star break to average 20.8 points and 9.2 rebounds per game on 57.3 percent shooting since March 25, providing the low-post punch to balance Utah's offensive attack. But when you look at the numbers, one big difference in the Jazz's output pops out — they're taking about three more 3-point attempts per game over the last 11 (which still only puts them in the middle of the pack in terms of long-range frequency) and hitting just under 40 percent of them. That gives the famously 3-point-averse Jazz the NBA's seventh-best distance mark since March 25, a huge improvement over their just-above-league-average full-season shooting and a major offensive jolt at just the right time, delivered primarily by a trio of wings who have come on strong for coach Tyrone Corbin.
After missing 32 games following surgery to repair a right thumb injury suffered in late December, point guard Mo Williams has shaken off the rust and started to look much more comfortable with his shot — he's averaging 15.6 points per game on 46.1 percent from the floor, 40.5 percent from 3-point range and has gone a perfect 25 for 25 from the free-throw line over his last 11 games. And while Mo will never be confused with a "true" or "pure" point guard, he's averaging 6.1 assists to 2.6 turnovers per game, offering a welcome respite from overreliance on the likes of often-shaky veteran backups Earl Watson and Jamaal Tinsley at the point. Thanks in large part to Williams' recent rise, the Jazz have significantly reduced the share of possessions on which they commit a turnover over the past 11 games, and are also assisting on made baskets more often than they were during their slide.
Following five weeks of dreadful 31 percent shooting, designated bomber Randy Foye has finally found his shooting touch, hitting a scorching 46.3 percent from deep and making multiple 3-pointers in 10 of the last 11 games. And Gordon Hayward's combination of scoring, facilitating and floor-spacing has been solid and much-needed since Corbin reinserted him into the starting lineup a month ago — a move considered loooooong overdue by many Jazz fans and observers — as the third-year pro has averaged 14 points, 4.3 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game on 47.5/43.1/78.3 shooting splits.
All told, Utah has looked like a sharper, more multifaceted and more dangerous offense than they had in weeks, and while some of that's had to do with the opposition they've faced — seven of their last 11 opponents have been lottery teams — it's also due in large part to rotational shifts, improved health and rediscovered rhythm. Maintaining that rhythm in Wednesday's must-win matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies figures to be tough, though.
For one thing, the Grizzlies boast the NBA's second-stingiest defense in terms of points allowed per possession. For another, they've given up the sixth-fewest 3-point attempts in the NBA and allowed the third-lowest 3-point percentage this season, running opponents off the line and funneling them into the middle, where they have to contend with Defensive Player of the Year candidate Marc Gasol. They've also gone 2-1 against Utah this season and held the Jazz to an offensive rating (97.9 points-per-100) equal to the one the Washington Wizards have produced this year ... which is to say, they've made Utah equivalent to the worst offense in the league. And, on top of all that, the Grizzlies figure to feature their full lineup, since they've still got something big to play for: the prospect of home-court advantage in a potential first-round rematch with the Clippers.
Utah's visit to Memphis tips off at 7 p.m. Tennessee time, which means the Lakers could know by the time they take the Staples Center court against the Rockets whether they've already clinched a playoff berth. If Utah pulls the upset, the Lakers will likely have their work cut out for them against a Rockets squad that carves up bad transition defenses (and L.A. has one of the worst in the league), bad pick-and-roll defenses (and L.A. has one of the worst in the league) and bad perimeter defenses (and L.A. has one of the worst in the league).
It's hard to take too much from the first three meetings between the two teams — of which Houston won two, including the last one, hanging 125 points on L.A.'s tissue-paper D — due in large part to the fact that Kobe Bryant played more than 37.2 minutes per game and dominated the Laker offense in them. Bryant, as you might have heard, tore his Achilles tendon this past weekend and will miss the next six to nine months; as a result, the Lakers' hopes on Wednesday figure to rest largely on the broad shoulders of big men Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, both of whom missed L.A.'s last meeting with Houston but have performed well over the Lakers' last 10 games.
Howard has made better than two-thirds of his shots (albeit while making only half his free throws) en route to averages of 21.5 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game, while Gasol has hit his post-plantar-fascia-tear stride at just the right time, averaging just under 16.5 points, 10 rebounds and six assists per game on 54 percent shooting down the stretch (even after a less-than-stellar performance in L.A.'s Sunday win over the San Antonio Spurs). They'll be expected to handle the scoring load against a Houston interior defense that's anchored by stalwart center Omer Asik but features few other strong frontcourt defenders.
With point guard Steve Nash ruled out for Wednesday's game, the playmaking responsibility will again fall to backup Steve Blake, who had a breakout scoring game against San Antonio, but didn't exactly make the L.A. offense sing in its maiden post-Kobe voyage. And on the defensive end, Blake, a somehow-actually-playing Metta World Peace and Howard will have their work cut out for them when it comes to cutting the non-stop forays into the paint that the backcourt of James Harden and Jeremy Lin make to compromise even good defenses.
If Mike D'Antoni has been able to work a little magic over the last two days to help maximize the effectiveness of the Howard-Gasol combination, and if L.A.'s outside shooters (Blake, Jodie Meeks, Antawn Jamison and, to a lesser extent, World Peace) can make the Rockets' often laconic half-court defense pay enough to give the bigs room to exploit their matchup advantages down low, the Lakers could effectively bully the smaller Rockets. But if the Rockets can successfully pack the paint and the Lakers' shots aren't falling, L.A. figures to find itself on the business end of a lot of early Houston offense, transition rim-runs and kickouts for wide-open 3-pointers, which seems like a recipe for disaster.
While the Rockets' pace-and-space offense should scare the wits out of any Lakers fan who's watched the team's defense this year, this is still L.A.'s slot to lose. The not-so-hard-traveling Jazz (just 13-27 on the road this year) have to beat a very good Memphis team at FedEx Forum, where the Grizzlies are 31-9 this season, on a night where Memphis can lock up home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Lakers — who are 28-12 at Staples Center and facing a Rockets team that's struggled on the road (16-24) — can advance even if they don't win.
As it's been throughout this dash for the No. 8 seed, it's pretty difficult to handicap two teams that don't play much defense, have inconsistent offenses and are subject to lineup volatility; the absence of Bryant, especially so late in the season that we have very little data on what the Kobeless Lakers look like, makes it all but impossible. But it seems like a better bet to pick the Lakers to finish Wednesday as one of the West's top eight than it would be to pick the Jazz to move on.
(Which is to say: You probably shouldn't bet on this.)