Tonight, should you be so inclined, you will watch a basketball game involving a team at the bottom end of the playoff ladder. A team that still holds out hope to keep climbing, just a few games back of the team in front of them, but that hope is dwindling because of their recent struggles. The other team will be the Los Angeles Lakers.
There are a great many parallels between the Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks. They are both currently in 8th place in their respective conferences. They both have struggled lately, with L.A. needing a missed foul call at the buzzer to hold on to their first victory in four games last night, while the Bucks come in having lost four in a row and seven of their last nine, including last night's loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. But there is one stark, and vitally important difference between the two: the view in the rear-view mirror.
There's nobody chasing Milwaukee. They are 6.5 games in front of the next EC team, those pesky 76ers, with 12 games to play. It would take a monumental collapse, combined with an equally monumental run from Philly, for the Bucks to not make the playoffs. They aren't locked into place yet, and doing anything and everything to avoid facing the Miami Heat in the first round is plenty of motivation for anybody, but their spot at the table is all but reserved.
The Lakers, on the other hand, have a couple teams on their coattails. The Utah Jazz are one game back, but more importantly, the Dallas Mavericks are just a .5 game behind Utah. We've been talking for months about Utah being LA's path of least resistance in getting into the playoffs, and that has proven to be the case. Utah still has a tough run of games coming and they have been pretty terrible for the last month or so. Anything less than a complete reversal of fortune for the Jazz will see them on the outside looking in. But Dallas? You should be worried about Dallas. They are 9-3 in their last 12 contests, and their schedule is only marginally more difficult than LA's down the stretch. Furthermore, the Mavs come to LA in a game that could very well determine who gets the 8 seed next week. None of that matters tonight, except to lay the scene in very clear and certain terms. The Lakers don't NEED a win tonight, but it would be very, very useful to them. Milwaukee would like a win as a chance to improve their playoff standing, but if they lose, it won't cause them any trouble. As such, LA should be the hungrier, more desperate team.
Of course, the factors regarding the game itself are not so clearly in the Lakers' favor. Tonight will be their second night of a back to back which, I probably don't need to tell you, has not been a circumstance they've dealt with well. You probably know that the Lakers have not won both games in a back-to-back all season long. You probably know they've only won twice on the second night of back to backs all season. You probably know that Metta World Peace's injury has caused coach Mike D'Antoni to permanently (this season at least) shorten his rotation to just eight players (and really, more like 7.5, because Earl Clark's PT has dwindled dramatically with the return of Pau Gasol), which means dudes are probably going to be tired. Kobe Bryant played 38 minutes last night, and Steve Nash played 36, though nobody else seemed all that over-utilized.
But, as back-to-backs go, the Lakers got about as favorable odds as they possibly could have in this one. Milwaukee is also playing for the second straight night, and they had to travel much further to get home than LA did. Monta Ellis played 42 minutes last night, the Bucks lost, and Brandon Jennings played just 17 minutes prior to being benched in the 4th quarter. Yes, Milwaukee will be playing at home, which helps with the dead legs in these situations. Yes, Milwaukee does not employ the basketball equivalent of a geriatric ward. But, if the Lakers are to avoid the ignominious distinction of failing to even once win both games of a back-to-back, tonight is their best (and nearly their last) opportunity.
They need it more. They have the advantage. Only time will tell if they can go out and take it.