As the season heads into the last 20 or so games, the possible playoff scenarios are beginning to take shape.
In the East, the top 4 teams are pretty clear cut: Boston, Miami, Chicago, and Orlando. Although Atlanta is lurking closeby record-wise, I don't think anyone really considers them a serious threat. A couple weeks ago, I would have picked Boston to come out of the East with very little trouble. However the trade of Perkins makes for an interesting situation. Perkins was the best defender of Dwight Howard out East, and now that he's gone, I'm not all that sure that Boston can beat Orlando in the 2nd round. Similarly, Chicago and Miami in the 2nd round is also too close to call either way. Even if the standings shuffle around a bit, it would still make for an insane conference semi-finals and finals. Now, any of those 4 teams could come out of the East.
In the West, the top 3 teams have clear separation over the rest of the field, and OKC should hold on to the 4th seed. Even if they somehow lost it to Denver, I'd say they would beat Denver handily in a series anyway. No one is going to catch the Spurs record-wise, but the interesting dynamic comes between the Mavs and our Lakers. Namely, who would get home-court in that very likely 2nd round matchup. Thus our goals, after the jump.
Goal #1: Catch Dallas in the standings.
This is important because LA has historically OWNED the Mavericks in LA. And by owned I mean completely and utterly owned. Since STAPLES opened back in 1999, the Lakers have amassed a 17-4 record against Dallas in games played at STAPLES. If you take out the years that the Lakers were not serious contenders, then that record is 14-2. That is a pretty incredible record when you consider that Dallas has been a very good team for pretty much the entire last decade or so, posting 50+ wins each season. But for some reason, they just can't consistently beat the Lakers in LA. Even in the Smush/Kwame years, the Lakers were 3-2 against them in LA. For games played in Dallas during the same period of time, the Lakers are only 11-11. Taking out the Smush/Kwame years only improves this slightly to 9-7.
Now, I think the Lakers would beat the Mavericks in a 7 game series regardless of who has home court, but when considering the age of our players, home court would be extremely helpful further down the road for the WCF and then the Finals. If Dallas has home court against us IMO the series would probably play out like this: we would likely split the first two, win games 3 and 4 at home, lose game 5, and close them out in game 6. If they somehow stole one at STAPLES, the odds are pretty good that we could still go 2-2 against them in games played in Dallas while winning 2 out of 3 of our home games, and thus win in 7 games.
If the Lakers had home court though, the series would likely play out more like: we win both of the first two, split games 3 and 4, and close it out in game 5. Even if Dallas wins one in LA, the odds are still pretty good we could take game 6 in Dallas, and if really necessary, beat them in a game 7 in LA. Regardless, home court provides for a smoother series for the Lakers, and more insurance in the case of a no-show game (it happens...).
Another important part of getting home court is if the series actually plays out like described and we win it in 5. This would likely give our players a good period of rest for their legs, but not too long so that they get out of rhythm. This would be very helpful because the Spurs are likely at the same time, going to be in the fight of their lives against the Thunder. IMO that series is likely to go 6 or 7 games, and it's not that far-fetched to see the Thunder pulling off the upset. If we get home court and can close out Dallas quickly, it gives our players adequate time to rest while the two main threats to the Lakers out West wear themselves out against each other. Regardless of who would win that series, our players would get much-needed rest so that they can either bang with the Spurs or to keep up with the young Thunder.
A well-rested Laker squad against a relatively worn-out Spurs or Thunder team would give us a decided advantage. Especially since the Spurs are older like us, and thus every bit of rest can be an edge. If it's the Thunder? I like our odds if Durant is already worn out against the Spurs AND THEN has to deal with Ron Artest broke-backing him for the series. I suspect he'd probably shoot ~35% for the series and we win handily. If the Lakers can turn that extra rest into results in the WCF, we could potentially end the WCF series quickly as well, and then get even more rest for the Finals. The East, as mentioned at the start, is anyone's game. Those teams are likely to push 7 games in each matchup regardless of how the final standings turn out.
Thus, home court against Dallas could pay serious dividends in the later rounds of the playoffs by giving us a well-rested Laker squad and especially a well-rested Black Mamba against relatively worn-out competition. At the moment, we are 3 back in the loss column, but we play Dallas twice more so this is definitely feasible. We would probably have to win both of those matchups in order to catch them, because otherwise they have the tie-breaker. We also probably have a more difficult schedule so it would be hard, but IMO it's worth it to try to catch them even if you have to play the starters extra minutes.
Goal #2: Catch Miami & Chicago in the standings
Chicago and Miami are both only 1 game ahead of us in the loss column so we could certainly catch them. If we manage to stay ahead of Orlando as well, then having home court against 3 of the 4 potential Eastern Conference Champs would be great for the Finals. Especially since Perkins got traded, the East is a crapshoot among those top 4 teams. However, I think that if we were to actually catch Dallas, we would probably accomplish this goal as well along the way.
Goal #3: Catch Boston?
We probably cannot catch Boston since we are 4 back in the loss column with 20 games to go and don't have anymore matchups against them. They would have to tank pretty hard in order for us to catch them. However their schedule includes many potential losses for them such as playing the Knicks twice, Heat, Spurs, and Bulls including potential upsets along the way to crappier teams. Our schedule is probably more difficult than theirs, so its a stretch, but not altogether impossible. If we were to catch Boston, then we probably passed Miami and Chicago as well, and also likely caught Dallas, in which case we would have home court against anyone except San Antonio.