Los Angeles Lakers, Utah Jazz Headed for Furious Finish in Race for Final Playoff Spot in West

Kobe Bryant, Al JeffersonSo, are the Lakers preparing another championship parade for this summer or depressingly pondering whether this star-crossed thing called life is really worth it? It is so hard to keep track sometimes.

A quick check of the Western Conference standings confirms the Lakers are back in crisis mode, tied with the Utah Jazz in the loss column for the eighth and final playoff spot, but effectively trailing because Utah holds the head-to-head tiebreaker. It does not help the Lakers that their point guard, Steve Nash, remains sidelined at least until Tuesday with a sore hamstring and hip, or that the Jazz have gotten back their own starting point guard in Mo Williams.

Since all things Lakers always get their share of attention — particularly when they could potentially miss the playoffs — here is a look at the scenarios for the Lakers and the Jazz heading into the regular season’s final two weeks.

Los Angeles Lakers (40-37, ninth in the West)
Remaining games: Five (New Orleans, at Portland, Golden State, San Antonio, Houston)
Home-road: 4-1
Opponents currently qualified for playoffs: Three

The Lakers have not had much of a home-court advantage this season, so finishing the year with four out of five at Staples Center might not provide the benefit it would seem. (The Clippers technically were the “home” team on Sunday, but let’s be real.) Going off home record alone, the Lakers would still fail to qualify for the playoffs.

The remaining opponents could be a blessing and a curse. Aside from Anthony Davis and Greivis Vasquez, the Hornets did not seem interested in putting up much of a fight against the Jazz on Friday, so Kobe Bryant and company can hope the Hornets bring a similar lack of intensity on Tuesday. The Blazers game should be a win, but the Warriors and Rockets are fighting for the No. 6 spot.

In case you have not been monitoring the West standings, the seventh and eighth seeds in the West are akin to the eighth spot in the East, where nobody wants to play the Heat in the first round. The Warriors currently hold a one-game edge for sixth, which allows them to avoid the Spurs or Thunder (who as jostling for first) in the first round.

As for the Spurs, those guys just don’t care. Gregg Popovich could rest his entire team and play the Austin Toros against the Lakers — and probably win.

Meanwhile, the Lakers have to get healthy. Metta World Peace reportedly is planning an extremely quick comeback from meniscus surgery, and Nash is expected back this week. Pau Gasol is playing himself back into shape. Bryant will play as long as he is not missing a limb, and even then he would probably still hop around and scowl at people.

Utah Jazz (41-37, eighth in the West)
Remaining games: Four (Oklahoma City, Minnesota, at Minnesota, at Memphis)
Home-road: 2-2
Opponents currently qualified for playoffs: Two

On paper, it all comes down to that home-and-home with the Timberwolves. The Thunder and Grizzlies are far superior teams, sothe Lakers should be able to bank on Utah going no better than 2-2 in their final four games. Right?

The rub is that the Jazz are a far different team at home. They already beat the Thunder in Utah earlier this year, and now they have a fully healthy Williams, who missed more than two months with a torn ligament in his right thumb. The Jazz won their first two meetings with the Wolves, who had a healthy Kevin Love for one of those games, and do not be surprised if the Grizzlies rest a lot of their key players in the season finale. (Memphis still is playing for home-court advantage in the first round and has a shot at the third seed, but that could be determined by April 17.)

In short, the Lakers are not finished yet, but they cannot count on any help from the Jazz the rest of the way. If nothing else, it should be fun to watch Bryant try to make good on his promise that the Lakers will make the playoffs, even if he has to drag them there himself.

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

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