Three days ago Kobe Bryant told Sports Illustrated:
"It's not a question of if we make the playoffs. We will, And when we get there, I have no fear of anyone"
Kobe Bryant's other-wordly competitiveness never allows him to admit defeat until defeat is certain. You see, Kobe Bryant has conquered so many seemingly insurmountable obstacles that he views every challenge, no matter how long the odds, as still being possible. It is this supreme confidence in his ability to win and his strong desire not to lose that allows him to make such bold predictions that he himself truly believes in, even when no one else does. It was only two seasons ago that the Lakers found themselves down 3-0 to Dallas Mavericks in the playoffs and in the post-game interviews Kobe provided the following insight into his mentality:
I don't know, I might be sick in the head or crazy or thrown off or something like that because I still think we're going to win this series.
The fat lady had yet to sing and Kobe felt absolute confidence, bordering on self-admitted insanity, that he could permanently shut the fat lady up like he has every critic who ever doubted his ability. We all know what happened, though. The Lakers went on to lose the next game by 36 points. Series lost. Season over.
Kobe's current proclamation that the Lakers will make the playoffs is certainly far more likely than winning a series after being down 0-3, but the odds are far longer than most people realize just looking at the standings. We'll take a look at the three teams the Lakers are battling for the final spot and what it will take to jump one of them in the standings.
The Houston Rockets (31-27) currently sit in the 8th spot and are 2.5 games up on the Lakers. The majority of fans tracking the Lakers' playoff hopes are keying in on Houston as the team they need to catch. Unfortunately, the Lakers will be hard pressed to catch Houston despite being only 2 games back in the loss column. Houston has every advantage over the Lakers going forward. On the season they have a better record, a larger margin of victory, against a tougher opponent on average, while playing more road than home games.
In the last 15 games they have been playing at the level of San Antonio, Miami, and Oklahoma City. While the 9-6 record in the last 15 games is not significantly impressive at first, consider that this record came with 9 of the 15 games on the road and the average opponent was well over .500. The Rockets average point differential during this stretch was 7.7 points. Although this was a little inflated by the 45 point beat down they put on Utah, even excluding this blowout they were still a +5.0 points per game against that difficult schedule. It took a little time for the Rockets to find chemistry and an identity after acquiring James Harden, Jeremy Lin, and Omer Asik in the offseason, but now that they have figured it out they are one of the NBA's elite teams by virtually any measure. John Hollinger's power rankings currently has Houston 4th and his playoff odds give them a 97% chance of making the playoffs with 48 wins. To reach 48 wins the Lakers would need to finish 20-5, a pace better than any team in the league has played at this season.
Let's put it this way, if LA was playing basketball like a top 4 team would you give another team behind you in the standings with a more difficult road ahead of you good odds of passing you? Probably not. That is why LA won't catch Houston unless something unforeseen happens, like a season ending injury to Harden or Asik (that's the 3% chance Houston doesn't make it).
If Houston is deemed un-catchable, then the Lakers are in reality chasing Utah (31-25). Utah presents a difficult task as they sit four games up on the Lakers in the loss column. Furthermore the Lakers lost the season series to Utah (2-1) and thus will need to leapfrog the Jazz as they would lose the tie-breaker, so the real target is to gain 5 games on Utah.
On the season the Jazz are 6 games over .500 but their point differential suggests they are a .500 team. Over the last 15 games they have gone a respectable 9-6, but in direct contrast to Houston, this record is overstated. Ten of the fifteen games were played in their home building where the Jazz are very difficult to beat. The schedule was also slightly on the softer side with the average opponent winning percentage just below .500. Things will get harder the rest of way.
The Jazz have played the easiest schedule to date of this group and have the hardest schedule going forward in terms of opponents' win percentage. They do, however, get two more home games than road games down the stretch, an advantage the Lakers do not have. The benefit of extra home games should offset the harder schedule and the basically average Utah Jazz should finish .500 the rest of the way. That would put them at 44 wins (Hollinger projects them to have 43). The Lakers would need 45 wins to make the playoffs at that point thus requiring them to go 17-8 the rest of the way. That is in line with the pace they have been winning at recently, but it is no easy feat. It only gets tougher if Utah continues to win games that it probably should lose as it did last week by beating Oklahoma City and then winning in Minnesota on the second night of a back to back.
The Golden State Warriors present the most intriguing possibility of a team to pass. The Warriors were 30-17 only two and half weeks ago and had a better than 90% chance of making the playoffs. They then went on the road for five out of six games and proceeded to lose every contest, including the home game in between to Houston. They appeared to be a team reeling. Unfortunately for the Lakers, the Warriors rebounded and beat a very good Spurs team Friday at home and then followed it up by erasing a 9 point deficit with 10 minutes to play in Minnesota on Sunday. That leaves the Lakers six games behind the Warriors in the loss column. That lead may not be as insurmountable as it appears though.
Despite the Warriors having a 33-23 record, they have been outscored slightly on the season. In their last 15 games they are 7-8 (the worst in this group) but 10 of the 15 have been played on the road, so the record isn't as bad as it first appears. Going forward they have the most favorable Home/Road split with 16 games at home and only 10 away. In terms of opponent win percentage their schedule is similar to LA's so given the locations of the games they have a more favorable closing stretch.
The most interesting part of the Warriors closing schedule is actually which teams they are playing. They play Houston twice (home and away), Utah once (home), and the Lakers twice (home and away). If Houston and LA can hang two losses each on the Warriors that would close the current gap of six games back in the loss column to only two. If Utah can pull of the road win, even better. It certainly puts them within striking distance at that point. Hollinger currently projects Golden State to win 46 games meaning the Lakers would need an 18-7 finish, but those four losses, should they occur, would put the Warriors closer to a 44 win season (Hollinger's projection assumes they are likely to drop the games in Houston and LA already). That is a record the Lakers can realistically obtain.
Having looked at the three teams the Lakers are chasing, the one closest to them (Houston) in the standings will likely be the most difficult to catch. Instead of following Houston, the Lakers should focus on Utah and Golden State as they present the target for post-season play. Unfortunately the Lakers aren't only 2 games back in the loss column from the playoffs then, they are in essence 5 games back of Utah and 6 games back of Golden State. Those are pretty big deficits to make up in only 25 games. That is why the Lakers are still the odds on favorite to miss the playoffs among this group. Just don't tell Kobe because he has guaranteed the Lakers can beat those odds. Will he be right this time?
Other interesting notes:
If Houston does falter and fails to pass Utah or Golden State, their final game of the season is against LA in Los Angeles. A Lakers win would split the season series 2-2 and the Lakers currently own a better conference record which means they would likely own the tie-breaker. Wouldn't that make a great "win or go home" game?
The Golden State Warriors' second to last game of the season is against San Antonio at home. If San Antonio continues to hold a multiple game advantage on the best record in the league and Golden State continues to struggle and finds itself fighting for the 8th seed with LA, San Antonio may be able to choose their opponent in the first round. A San Antonio loss would give them a reeling Golden State team in the first round. A San Antonio win would give them a surging Lakers team that they beat once on a last second three and the other a small three-point victory at home with neither Gasol or Howard playing. Clearly Golden State would be the more favorable opponent. Would Popovich dare rest his stars again to help influence the outcome and his playoff opponent?