March Madness, which now drifts into April every year, ended on Monday and so the focus of the basketball world shifts quickly to the NBA and the upcoming playoffs. This is normally the time of year when Lakers fans start to get excited. The "real" season is about to begin. Unfortunately there is little for die-hard fans of the purple and gold to cheer for as their chance at playing in the post-season died somewhere between Dwight's departure and Christmas, depending on your level of optimism. This doesn't mean all is lost. For those who are more than just Lakers fans, the NBA has luckily stumbled into an incredible final week of games as the West's final two seeds hang in the balance.
It's not uncommon for the final playoff seeds to be undecided until the final week. What is somewhat rare is having the teams that are still on the bubble actually playing each other during this final week. We rarely seem to get a true "win and you're in" scenario that underlies the excitement of March Madness. Too often a team fighting to get in gets a few games against teams that aren't giving it their all, whether it be
tanking improving their draft position, or resting their starters for the playoff run. Either way, it is often the case that a team is given a scheduling benefit that can mean the difference between playing in the post season or watching it on TV. Not this year. This year the NBA has hit a home run in its closing stretch of scheduled games and the uber-competitive Western Conference playoff race.
In the West there are three teams vying for two playoff spots: Phoenix Suns (47-31), Dallas Mavericks (48-32), and the Memphis Grizzlies (46-32). It's a battle between a team no one expected to make the playoffs (Phoenix), a team no one expected to miss the playoffs (Memphis), and a team everyone figured would be on the bubble (Dallas). The beauty in all of this is that these three teams have a total of 10 games left, and they are matched up against each other in 6 of the 10 games. But the scheduling luck doesn't just end there; the games they don't play against each other will serve to even out any small difference in the standings currently so that this truly becomes a mini round robin tournament to make the playoffs.
Let's start with the team on the outside looking in, the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies have four games remaining and sit tied in the loss column with Dallas, but have two fewer wins than the Mavs due to fewer games being played. Who are Memphis' next two opponents? The D-league teams known as the Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Lakers. If Memphis drops what are now considered must win games against two of the worst teams in the league, they deserve to have the door to the post season slammed in their face. Assuming Memphis takes care of business in these next two games, they will be tied with Dallas at 48-32 with two games to go.
Now consider the Phoenix Suns, who are in the driver's seat as they have a one game lead in the loss column over both Dallas and Memphis. Their next opponent (tonight) is none other than the team with the best record in the league, the San Antonio Spurs. To make matters worse, the game is in San Antonio where the Spurs haven't lost a home game since before the Superbowl. The Spurs are favored and with a win would drop Phoenix down to 47-32. The Suns' final game of the season is in Sacramento, another bottom feeding team, so Phoenix should win that game as well. Assuming they will win the last game of the season, the Suns can expect to be in essence 48-32, the same record as where the Mavs currently stand and where Memphis should be after it dispatches its two bottom feeding opponents.
This is where things get really exciting: Three teams, identical records, all fighting for two playoff spots, with only two games to go. The NBA schedule for those last games:
Sat, Apr 12 - Phoenix @ Dallas
Mon, Apr 14 - Memphis @ Phoenix
Wed, Apr 16 - Dallas @ Memphis
There it is, a three team round robin tournament with each team having one home game and one road game. It's tough to ask for a better closing stretch of games with so much on the line. It will be hard to see a team win 48 or even 49 games and go home, particularly when a win total like that is potentially a 3-seed in the East. It does, however, give NBA fans some additional entertainment as we enter the closing stretch of the regular season. At this point, that is all Lakers fans can really ask for, isn't it?