If you’re a Spurs fan, let me save you the double-take; the purple and gold lights are flashing and the Lakers sirens are blaring. The Los Angeles Lakers are right behind you with those obnoxious playoff flags slapping in the wind and Jack Nicholson is on the bullhorn, yelling “PULL OVER”.
As a Spurs fan, you’re probably getting that sinking feeling in your stomach right about now as your heart starts racing and your brain starts thinking a million thoughts. “If we had just won that one game … how did this happen … I didn’t even see them coming … can we still talk our way out of this? … do you think Kobe Bryant takes bribes? …”.
I know what it’s like — the Lakers passed up my Boston Celtics team bus a few miles back while we were stuck on the side of the road with a flat Rondo. No one thought it was possible for the Lakers to surpass the Spurs a few weeks ago after they stumbled into All-Star Weekend. Now, they are just two and a half games out of first in the West. That’s what happens when you go 16-1 and the team in front of you falters to an 11-8 record in the same timespan. Gone now are the worries about home court vs. the Spurs and the Celtics. What’s replaced them is more than hope; it’s a real tangible chance for Lakers to clinch the top seed overall and secure home court through the NBA Finals.
So, for those wondering, can the Lakers actually do what seemed impossible just a month ago? Here’s what each team has left on their remaining schedules:
The Spurs’ Remaining Schedule: The Spurs have seven games versus six teams, of which only three teams are over .500. In games against those teams, the Spurs have won 13 games already and lost just one — to the Lakers. They play these next seven games in a span of 13 days, in which three of the games are back-to-backs (v. HOU, SAC, PHO). The overall opponent winning percentage in their remaining games is 50.8%. It’s not a cakewalk but it’s not climbing Everest, either.
The Lakers’ Remaining Schedule: L.A. has eight games remaining (one more than the Spurs) over the next 13 days. Like San Antonio, L.A. also plays three back-to-backs (v. UTA, GSW, SAC). In those games they play seven teams whom the Lakers have beaten in 13 of 18 contests — losses v. SAS, SAC, UTA, DEN. They play four teams over .500 and the overall opponent winning percentage for their opponents is 53.5%, just a bit tougher than the Spurs remaining schedule.
So the real question to answer is if the Lakers can actually pull this off and what it’s going to take to overcome a 2.5 game deficit. There are thousands of different combinations of outcomes that can take place, so I’m going to look at those with the highest likely outcomes.
Scenario #1: Lakers go 8-0 and Spurs go 6-1 but lose to the Lakers.
Final Records:Lakers 62-20, Spurs 63-19.
Outcome:Spurs win the West and most likely lock up home court advantage throughout the playoffs. There is no need for head-to-head tie-breakers.
Scenario #2 (The sexiest and most complex): Lakers go 8-0 and Spurs go 5-2 but lose to the Lakers.
Final Records: Lakers 62-20, Spurs 62-20.
Outcome: This would mean that both LA and the Spurs tie in the standings and split the head-to-head games. Going through the tie-breaker* rules, the next tie-break is a team’s record versus conference opponents. If this scenario plays out (assuming one of the SAS losses comes vs. ATL) the Spurs would have a 40-12 record and the Lakers would have a 41-11 record. If the Spurs beat ATL but still lose two games, their record vs. Conference Opp will only get worse. The next tie-breaker after this one would be a better winning percentage versus teams eligible for the playoffs in their own conference. The Lakers are also leading in this tie breaker, according to HoopStats.com. This would give the Lakers the #1 seed out West and most likely the #1 seed overall.
Scenario #3: Lakers go 7-1 and the Spurs go 4-3 but beat the Lakers.
Final Records: Lakers 61-21, Spurs 61-21.
Outcome: Spurs and Lakers will tie in the standings but the Spurs will own the head-to-head tie-breaker. This will give the Spurs the #1 seed and the Lakers will secure the #2 seed out West.
Scenario #4 (My guess): Lakers go 6-2 and the Spurs go 4-3 and lose to the Lakers.
Final Records: Lakers 60-22, Spurs 61-21.
Outcome: This will give the Spurs the #1 seed and the Lakers will secure the #2 seed out West. I can see the Spurs losing on Friday (tonight) to the Houston Rockets, losing to the Lakers in L.A. and then losing a fast-paced game to Phoenix on the second night of a back-to-back to close out the season. On the flip side, I can see the Lakers dropping a game in Portland and another game to either the Nuggets or the Thunder. The game at home versus the Thunder is the ultimate trap game. OKC is on fire, winning 10 of their last 11 and this game is sandwiched in between a road game in Portland and a huge game at Staples versus the Spurs. In this scenario, the Lakers come just short of taking 1st but would most likely have home court against any Eastern Conference foe.
If the Spurs lose more than two games, they need to make sure that they best the Lakers to give them that head-to-head tie breaker. That single win acts as a one-game cushion between the Spurs and the Lakers, forcing the Lakers to have to finish with a better record than the Spurs to win the division because a tie will automatically go to the Spurs.
Can the Lakers do it? Sure. It sounds rather obvious but the Lakers will have to beat the Spurs and hope they get lucky and the Spurs lose at least one more game.
The Lakers have been scorching hot as of late and their remaining schedule is one that shouldn’t result in more than two losses. With that said, the most important stretch for them will begin on the road April 8th in Portland and then at home against the Thunder and Spurs. The Lakers will be playing some teams against whom they’ve struggled against this season, like Utah, Denver and the Spurs, but things have changed for all of them since they all played the Lakers.
The Lakers themselves are in the best shape they have been all season. Everyone is healthy including starting center, Andrew Bynum and their glue-guy in Matt Barnes. Having these guys being back in the lineup allows everyone to return to their natural positions and roles on the team. Also, Ron Artest seems to be peaking (and having loads of fun) while Kobe is in MVP form. Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom are, as always, playing great basketball. The Lakers look tough to beat, almost impossible.
As for the Jazz, Nuggets and Spurs? The Jazz have suffered a meltdown of nuclear proportions since their 27-13 start. They lost their franchise player and coach along with a spot in the playoffs. Not sure they have anything left to play for outside of pride. The Nuggets are a starless team that’s actually playing better than before the Melo trade. Denver has a lot to play for as they are currently in 5th place in the West. The Spurs, a team who has lost five in a row for the first time since 1997 (!!!) are going in the wrong direction. Not sure if this is a team regressing and crashing to Earth in a fireball, or just fighting injury until the playoffs start, but things don’t look good for them. If the Lakers ever had a chance to overcome a 2.5 game deficit for first place, now is the time.
And the scary thing is, the lakers didn’t even try until the last month of the season.
Shane is a contributor to Larry Brown Sports, NBAoffseason.com and Stacheketball.com. You can find him babbling about basketball all over the net or tune in as he tweets nonsense on twitter @Suga_Shane.
*Playoff Tie-breaker Rules:
(1) Better winning percentage in games against each other.
(2) Better winning percentage against teams in own division (only if tied teams are in same division).
(3) Better winning percentage against teams in own conference.
(4) Better winning percentage against teams eligible for playoffs in own conference (including teams that finished the regular season tied for a playoff position).
(5) Better winning percentage against teams eligible for playoffs in opposite conference (including teams that finished the regular season tied for a playoff position).
(6) Better net result of total points scored less total points allowed against all opponents (“point differential”).