It’s not a question of if we make the playoffs. We will. And when we get there, I have no fear of anyone — Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Denver…whoever.
— Kobe Bryant
Over his 17 seasons in the NBA, Bryant could always guarantee that he’ll do something absolutely amazing with the basketball just about every time he steps onto the court.
He can shake off an 0-for-10 shooting start to bury a half dozen jumpers and an opponent in a fourth-quarter blink of an eye.
He can duck and whirl through traffic, change hands with the ball and squeeze through a crack in the defense for a clutch how-did-he-do-that bucket.
He can rise up with a hand in his face, almost down his throat, and knock down an impossible 3-pointer with the sheer grace.
He can lead a 20-0 comeback in the final 6 1/2 minutes to pull out a dramatic and critical 108-106 win over the Hornets.
But no matter how many times or how emphatically he says it, what Bryant cannot guarantee is all that can happen with the teams in front of his underachieving Lakers in the Western Conference standings. For even if the Lakers put on a strong finishing kick — say 14-6 or 13-7 — they will still likely need one or more of the Warriors, Rockets and Jazz to tumble.
Can it happen? Sure. Will it happen? Nothing guaranteed. Sometimes it’s not about the hunter, but the prey.
No. 6 — Warriors (35-27)
Back in those long ago days of early February when his team was threatening to compete for the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage in the playoffs, coach Mark Jackson liked to shake his head and scowl at the doubters who didn’t think his Warriors could run and shoot and play defense all at the same time. Maybe those doubts were just premature. Over the past five weeks, the Golden State defense has fallen off any one of the area’s picturesque bridges and sunk to the bottom of the bay.
In losing 10 of 13 games that dropped them from elite status to suddenly hanging on for playoff lives, the Warriors gave up 112 points per game. Even in ending their skid with a win over the Raptors, they surrendered 118. The Warriors have often looked lifeless, confused, unfocused of late.
“We’ve been bad,” Jackson told reporters before Wednesday night’s 87-83 win over the Kings. “We haven’t been good. Overall, we haven’t protected the paint, we haven’t controlled the perimeter. There was a time when our defense was in the discussion for the best in the game, and we’ve gone through a tough stretch. If we expect not just to make the playoffs, but if we expect to do the damage that we want to do, we’ve got to be better. And we understand that.”
Of course, the Warriors have played most of the season without their two top defenders, center Andrew Bogut and swingman Brandon Rush (who was lost for the season after two games). Yet it’s a sense of urgency and effort recently that has set off the alarm bells.
“Regardless of where we’re playing, nobody is going to allow us to walk into a victory,” said guard Jarrett Jack. “We’ve got to go out there and take it. That’s not going to change unless we decide to change.”
There are two significant changes that should help the Warriors stop their slide and hold on. First, they’ve got Bogut back in the lineup after missing six games with back spasms. He not only guards the rim, but plays quarterback barking out orders from behind the defense. The Warriors are 8-6 (.571) with him in the lineup and 27-21 (.563) without him. No matter what the basic stats or advanced metrics say, the Warriors believe they’re far better off with Bogut manning the middle.
“For anyone to sit here and say, ‘We’re better without Bogut,’ is absolutely crazy,” Jack told Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle. “He’s a tremendous asset to our team. His interior defense has saved us on many, many, many occasions.
“Anybody who is even hinting that we’re better off without him is not cool and is inaccurate. I would definitely go against that thinking with everything that I have.”
Of the four teams in the race for the final three playoff spots, the Warriors also have the friendliest finishing schedule with 14 of their final 20 games — and nine of last 12 — at home. They have just three sets of back-to-back games and have more of their fate in their own hands than any of the other three teams with five games against Lakers (2), Rockets (2) and Jazz (1).
20 games remaining: 14 home, 6 road.
(11 vs. current playoff teams)
Friday vs. Rockets
Saturday vs. Bucks
March 18 at Rockets
March 19 at Hornets
April 11 vs. Thunder
April 12 at Lakers
Head-to-head vs. other playoff hopefuls:
0-2 vs. Rockets
Friday — home
March 17 — road
1-1 vs. Jazz
April 7 — home
0-2 vs. Lakers
March 25 — home
April 12 — road
No. 7 — Rockets (33-29)
When general manager Daryl Morey traded away two of his solid young forwards in Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris at the trade deadline and brought in Thomas Robinson, it was a big-picture move. Oh, his Rockets and their long-suffering fans would enjoy and benefit from the postseason experience, but the big game hunt is next summer when Houston could have cap room to sign two max-level free agents.
Having said that, the Rockets, with their fast-paced offense, the virtuoso efforts of first-time All-Star James Harden and his running point guard sidekick, Jeremy Lin, have proven to be one of the league’s most entertaining teams. But even with the youngest roster in the NBA, they’re not looking over their shoulders at the Lakers. They are 3-3 since the trade-deadline shakeup, alternately looking capable and clueless, often within the same game.
“I could care less about the Lakers,” said forward Chandler Parsons. “If we win our games, maybe the Jazz will lose and help the Lakers get in if everybody wants them in. We control out own destiny right now.
“(Kobe’s) confident in his team and I respect that. He can’t guarantee us losing games. He can’t guarantee the Jazz losing games. Those are just words to me.”
“I have no idea how far away (in the standings) they are,” said Lin. “I actually have no idea. I just think for us, I’d rather look forward, look at the seventh and sixth seed than I would the ninth … If we do a good job, we should be able to move up, and we won’t have to worry about anybody catching us.”
“We’re not at a point where we’re going to be setting these lofty five-month goals or three-month or three-week goals or whatever,” said coach Kevin McHale. “No, I’m not even thinking about the playoffs.”
The Rockets have proven throughout the season that they are capable of beating many of the best teams (OKC, New York, Memphis, Chicago, Atlanta, Brooklyn) and losing to some of the worst (New Orleans, Philadelphia, Sacramento, Washington, Toronto).
For the past three seasons, the Rockets have missed the playoffs by one spot. Last year, they coughed up the No. 8 seed to Utah by losing six in a row and seven of their final nine games. This time around, it would seem the presence of Harden should prevent a repeat, though they did drop seven straight in January.
Their schedule appears favorable with 12 of the final 20 games at home, with four sets of back-to-backs left and three of them conclude against a team working with a full night’s rest. If the race goes to the wire, the season finale will be a doozy when they face the Lakers in L.A.
20 games remaining: 12 home, 8 road.
(10 vs. current playoff teams)
Thursday at Warriors
Friday at Suns
March 29 at Grizzlies
March 30 vs. Clippers
April 5 at Trail Blazers
April 6 at Nuggets
April 14 vs. Kings
April 15 at Suns
Head-to-head vs. other playoff hopefuls:
2-0 vs. Warriors
Friday — road
March 17 — home
2-1 vs. Jazz
March 20 — home
2-1 vs. Lakers
April 19 — road
No. 8 — Jazz (32-29)
It would seem that if the Lakers are going to fulfill Kobe’s promise and bounce all the way back into the playoffs, the Jazz are the most likely trampoline. The simple reason?A schedule that has produced two consecutive blown road win opportunities in Milwaukee and Cleveland. Additionally, Utah has five losses in its last six games.
The challenge continues as the Jazz will play six of their next nine on the road, where they are already a miserable 10-21. In the middle of that is a tough pair of home games against the Grizzlies and Knicks. Toss in a Texas Triangle trip though Houston, San Antonio and Dallas and then close out the season at Minnesota and Memphis and the rope could slip right through their hands.
Did we mention that center Al Jefferson has been sidelined for three games by a sprained ankle?
“I never counted the Lakers out,” Jefferson said. “I knew sooner or later they’d get it together. But we got where we got because we play well. That’s what we’ve got to continue to do. It’s going to be a dogfight. If it was easy, everybody’d do it.”
“I think we know the standings,” said guard Gordon Hayward. “The (locker room) board over there gets updated and we realize each and every game is important.
“I don’t think it’s pressure. I think we’ve all been through pressure before so we’re just going to make sure we play our game and take it one game at a time.”
“It’s obviously important. We want to make sure we get to the playoffs and have the chance to fight for the whole thing. That’s the reason why you play. We can’t have any slides, especially on these road trips. All these teams are bunched up and a four or five-game losing streak could put us out of the playoffs.”
But what would another 8th-place finish would do for the Jazz as a franchise? Has anyone on the current roster benefitted from the 4-0 wipeout by the Spurs last season? And how much of the Jazz that we see now will be back in October?
“I said from Day 1 of training camp, this could be a [top 4 seed] playoff team,” said the veteran Jefferson. “I still feel that way. The way I felt in training camp was, we could compete against anybody. Once we get in the playoffs, I think we have a chance against anybody in the first round.”
Most around the league were surprised when Kevin O’Connor and Dennis Lindsey didn’t pull the trigger on a deal at the trade deadline to unload either Paul Millsap or Jefferson to free up minutes (and a starting role) for Derrick Favors.
Utah’s so-called “Core Four” of Favors, Hayward, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks is the future of the franchise. But the reluctance of coach Tyrone Corbin to commit to them — especially Favors — has frustrated Jazz fans and likely stopped Utah from taking a necessary step forward. It’s a team in that is stuck between the present and the future, also in need of a point guard and too often it shows.
“You’re always aware of what’s going on with your opponents,” Corbin said. “You can’t get crazy about it, you can’t control it. The only thing we can control is what we do. So we want make sure we put more emphasis on what we’re doing and how we’re playing, more so than worrying about somebody else winning or losing to give us an opportunity to move up.”
No guarantees. No matter what Kobe says.
Remaining schedule: 11 home, 10 road
(12 vs. current playoff teams)
Friday at Bulls
Saturday at Knicks
March 24 at Mavericks
March 25 vs. Sixers
March 29 at Trail Blazers
March 30 vs. Nets
Head-to-head vs. other playoff hopefuls:
1-1 vs. Warriors
April 7 — road
1-2 vs. Rockets
March 20 — road
2-1 vs. Lakers
Steve Aschburner and Andrew Aragon contributed to this report.