Dwight Howard, Lakers Back in Playoff Picture But Not Out of Danger Yet

Kobe Bryant, Ivan JohnsonThe Lakers are back in the playoffs, if the playoffs were to start immediately. Kobe Bryant took control of a dysfunctional situation and refused to let his team miss out on the postseason, and all the drama in Los Angeles is effectively over with.

Only, it is not. Maybe it should not be completely shocking that all the overreaction regarding the Lakers at their lowest point has swung around in the other direction. Yes, the Lakers are back among the top eight in the Western Conference, holding a half-game lead over the Utah Jazz entering Thursday, but they are not out of the woods yet. This story is far from over, and not simply because Bryant suffered a severe ankle sprain against the Hawks on Wednesday that will keep him out indefinitely.

This may be shocking to the ESPN-obsessed, but there are greater factors in who makes the playoffs than simply Bryant’s untiring will. How quickly people forget. Just a couple of months ago, the Nuggets were laughed out of the playoff conversation right along with the Lakers, and now both are playing as well as any team in the NBA (aside from the Heat).

More than anything, though, the Nuggets are a cautionary signal for the Lakers. These Nuggets suffered two three-game losing streaks in their first 10 games of the season. They limped out of a Christmas Day game against the Clippers with a 15-14 record. They were supposedly proof that winning without a superstar, the model coach George Karl and general manager Masai Ujiri espoused, was a fool’s errand.

It was all nice and tidy, except that knee-jerk analysis ignored the real reasons for the Nuggets’ slow start. Twenty-two of Denver’s first 32 games were on the road, which has turned out to have a not-so-inconsequential impact on how the team has fared since. Without putting too fine a point on it, the Nuggets are virtually unbeatable at the Pepsi Center, with a league-best 28-3 record at home. Maybe — just maybe — the Nuggets’ slow start was a product of a road-heavy schedule as much as anything, and observers were wrong to write them off so soon.

A similar situation is unfolding in Utah, the home state where the Jazz have not spent more than two consecutive days since the month began. The Jazz are nowhere near the all-around team the Nuggets are, but they remain formidable in Salt Lake City, as they have been since before John Stockton and Karl Malone were exchanging passes. The lessons of Denver’s experience earlier in the season are being overlooked regardless.

Each of Utah’s last five losses have been on the road, and three of those losses came by three points or fewer. Including Wednesday’s game in Oklahoma City, the Jazz are in a stretch in which four of six are on the road. But after that, eight of their final 12 are at Energy Solutions Arena, where the Jazz are 23-8, and only five of the 12 are against teams currently in the playoff race. This closing stretch has been conveniently overlooked by those who want to declare the Jazz dead and the Lakers home-free.

There are plenty of reasons to believe in the Lakers and plenty of reasons not to believe in the Jazz. Bryant could continue his brilliant play of late while the Jazz’s challenging schedule over the next two weeks could bury them before they ever reach their cupcake finish. This is not about determining which team is better, but which team will be in the more advantageous position heading into the decisive final month.  As it stands, the Lakers likely will need more than a half-game cushion to outlast the Jazz, or even the Rockets or Warriors, if it comes to that.

When talking about what the postseason picture would look like “if the playoffs started today,” though, it is worthwhile to keep in mind that they don’t. Just as the Lakers could not be counted out of the playoff race a month ago, they cannot be counted in just yet.

Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.

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