HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — First off, a surge to get into playoff position by either the Los Angeles Lakers or Dallas Mavericks must be accompanied by some cliff jumping from the Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets and/or Portland Trail Blazers.
But is that so unimaginable? Seventh-place Utah (28-24) has lost two straight, is still without Mo Williams, all while Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap’s names are being bandied about in trade rumors. Eighth-place Houston (28-25) blew a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead at Sacramento on Sunday and, despite its offensive prowess led by first-time All-Star James Harden, allows the most points per game among the West’s top 12 teams.
And ninth-place Portland (25-26), playing with a rookie point guard — albeit Rookie of the Year frontrunner Damian Lillard — a 6-foot-9 center in J.J. Hickson and basically no bench, has hit the skids recently to fall below .500.
So the window is cracked for the Lakers (24-28), who still sit 3 1/2 games behind Houston despite winning seven of their last 10, as well as for the Mavs (22-28), who have won two in a row to creep within 4 1/2 games of the eighth spot.
So which team is better positioned to make a run?
From a sheer talent standpoint, how could anyone pick against the Lakers’ star-power: Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Metta World Peace and Pau Gasol (when he returns). Gosh, why not just have the Hall-of-Fame induction during the Lakers’ critical four-game homestand that starts Tuesday against Phoenix?
But if it’s all about talent, then the Lakers would be challenging Oklahoma City and San Antonio for West supremacy and not praying for Utah, Houston and Portland to crater.
From a cohesion standpoint, how could anyone in their right mind pick the Lakers’ gaggle of ill-fitting stars? Gasol is out six to eight weeks and the awkwardness between Kobe, Dwight and coach Mike D’Antoni grows more baffling by the day. Even Dwight’s dad recently inserted himself into the daily drama. Then there’s Nash not really playing point guard anymore and a bench that provides little relief. To be this disjointed this late in the season wouldn’t seem to bode well.
Now, these Mavs, oh boy are they united. They recently decided to grow unity beards that they’ll let fly until the team reaches .500, a mark they haven’t sniffed since being 11-11 on Dec. 12. This is typically a gimmick done by desperate teams, which is exactly what the Mavs are at this point. So, at the risk of some itchy necks, at least Dallas’ players are pulling in the same direction and believe in the guidance of coach Rick Carlisle. They’re off to a 2-0 start on their five-game homestand (and seven of eight at home) with Atlanta coming up tonight (8:30 ET, League Pass).
Dirk Nowitzki still isn’t back to his accustomed level, averaging just 14.7 ppg on 40.7 percent shooting, so there’s always the prospect of bigger things to come from Dirk. O.J. Mayo and veterans Vince Carter and Shawn Marion have provided scoring boosts and point guard Darren Collison has put together a solid month. When they keep turnovers down and don’t get killed on the glass, particularly on the defensive end, Dallas has proven it can challenge top teams, such as twice taking OKC to overtime and nearly upsetting the Heat in Miami.
The Mavs are 1-8 in overtime games and 2-6 in games decided by three points or less. Many of those losses came with Dirk out recuperating from Oct. 19 arthroscopic surgery on his right knee that forced him out of the first 27 games. They believe if they can pull out more of those close games in their final 32, they’ll be in position to snag a playoff spot.
A significant swing game arrives on Feb. 24 when the Lakers visit the Mavs (1 p.m. ET, ABC). They’ll meet again in L.A. on April 2.
So which team has the easier road ahead (which is probably poor wording since nothing has come easy for either team)?
|Teams||Games||Home (record)||Road (record)||Games vs. current playoff teams||Winning percentage of opponents||Record vs. .500+ teams|
|No. 10 Lakers (24-28)||30||16 (15-10)||14 (9-18)||15||.496||12-20|
|No. 11 Mavericks (22-28)||32||18 (14-9)||14 (8-19)||19||.506||10-21|
Lakers’ toughest stretch: Feb. 14 – March 5 (8 games: vs. Clippers, vs. Boston, vs. Portland, at Dallas, at Denver, vs. Minnesota, vs. Atlanta, at Oklahoma City); Close second: April 2-17 (8 games: vs. Dallas, vs. Memphis, at Clippers, vs. New Orleans, at Portland, vs. Golden State, vs. San Antonio, vs. Houston)
Mavs’ toughest stretch: Feb. 27 – March 14 (8 games: at Memphis, at Brooklyn, at Houston, vs. Houston, at Detroit, at Minnesota, at Milwaukee, at San Antonio); Close second: March 17-30 (8 games: vs. Oklahoma City, at Atlanta, vs. Brooklyn, vs. Boston, vs. Utah, vs. Clippers, vs. Indiana, vs. Chicago)