7:30 p.m. PDT
In Major League Baseball, it's not uncommon for the season to come down to the last game of the season. After a 162 game marathon, divisions somehow have a way of allowing for two teams to tie going into the last days of September. Now, with the recent advent of a one-game Wild Card showdown with the postseason on the line, there's a guaranteed "win and in" situation every single year. Thanks to a truckload of injuries, an early season coach axing, chemistry issues and zero breaks, the Los Angeles Lakers face a similar situation: one day with everything on the line.
With so many moving parts, let's break it down piece by piece:
If the Lakers win: They'll qualify for the postseason as the 7th seed and a first round matchup with the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs are locked in as the 2-seed no matter if they win or lose tonight against Minnesota. Houston has clinched a playoff spot already, so if the Lakers beat them, they'll finish as the 8th seed and face the 1-seed Oklahoma City Thunder. Even if the Utah Jazz win tonight, a LA victory sends them fishing.
If the Lakers lose AND the Utah Jazz win: The Lakers do not qualify for the postseason, while the Jazz will be the 8th seed. Houston will finish with the 7th seed. Everyone cries in Southern California.
If the Lakers lose AND the Utah Jazz lose: The Lakers finish as the 8th seed will travel to Oklahoma City this weekend. The Rockets will be the 7th seed. No matter who else wins or loses, a Jazz loss would put LA in the playoffs.
If the Rockets win AND the Golden State Warriors lose: The Rockets finish as the 6th seed and avoid both the Spurs and Thunder. The Denver Nuggets are no treat, but certainly a more appetizing match up than facing the first two seeds. The Warriors would be the 7th seed and IF the Utah Jazz were to lose on top of this, the Lakers would be the 8th seed.
Houston clearly has a lot to play for here, so just because they've locked up a playoff spot doesn't mean they'll just cede this game to a much more desperate Lakers team. A win or loss can put them anywhere from 6th to 8th depending on Utah and GS and thus, a win not only helps them build a little momentum before the postseason, but also can't hurt their seeding chances.
The Jazz/Grizzlies game will tip off at 5pm PDT and should conclude right around start time for Lakers/Rockets. Los Angeles should know by the end of the first quarter whether or not Utah has pushed the onus of a postseason berth onto them, which hopefully won't keep the Lakers from beginning the game like their playoff lives depend on it. Memphis' situation helps the Lakers as well--they need a win and a Clippers loss at Sacramento to secure precious home court advantage.
Luckily and unluckily for the Lakers, a tight Western Conference race has kept all of the teams affecting its fortunes playing their hardest going into game number 82. LA will have to play the same type of tough nosed defense they enacted versus San Antonio on Sunday, seeing as a fast paced Houston squad ran the Lake Show into the ground in 125-112 blowout at STAPLES three months ago. The Lakers will be without their All-Star back court for one final time this regular season, with Steve Nash unable to go because of hip and hamstring problems. The hope is that he'll be able to come back IF LA makes the playoffs, as the games would start on either Saturday or Sunday.
Regardless of whether or not Utah wins tonight, the Lakers need to go for the W. The prize? A date with a hobbled and spiraling Spurs team that they could push to seven games and maybe (just MAYBE) a possible first round upset, even without Kobe. With a loss? An early offseason fraught with questions including Bryant's health, another coaching change and Dwight's re-signing with the team. Certainly not a future anyone wants to visit with any urgency.
Win and they're in. A dramatic ending to one of the most dramatic seasons in Lakers history. Could not be any more fitting, could it?
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino