HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The magic number for the Los Angeles Lakers is one, or “Uno Mas” as Kobe Bryant put it late Sunday night.
One more win by the Lakers — they wrap up the regular season against Houston on Wednesday night — secures their playoff bid. But they could lock it down without taking the floor if the Utah Jazz can’t keep the pace tonight in Minnesota. A Jazz loss also nails down the Lakers’ postseason plans.
That’s just one of the glaring storylines on tap for a busy, 11-game Monday around the league:
CHICAGO BULLS at ORLANDO MAGIC (7 p.m. ET, LEAGUE PASS): The Bulls’ regular-season-ending Florida road trip continues in Orlando, where the Bulls have to win if they want to keep up their chase for the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Of course, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is more concerned with his team’s recent struggles (they are 1-4 after a 6-2 surge that had them in striking distance for home court advantage in the first round) than he is anything that will come this weekend. “I don’t want us thinking about the playoffs,” he said. “I want us thinking about the game against the Orlando Magic.”
Other than the distance, there isn’t much difference between a 4-5 matchup with Brooklyn or a 3-6 matchup against Central Division rival Indiana in the first round. The Bulls will go into the weekend as one of the most dangerous lower seeds on either side of the conference divide. That is, of course, if they can actually get back to playing winning basketball.
UTAH JAZZ at MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (8 p.m. ET, LEAGUE PASS): Plenty of televisions and mobile devices in Southern California will be tuned into this game, which reunites the previous and current fans of the Lakers in a way that has probably never happened before. The Jazz have to win out and hope the Lakers fall in their regular season finale against Houston to claim the playoff bid they have been chasing vigorously the past month.
“Focus. Focus,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. “They play well at home. They have great fans in Minnesota. They’re really going to be hyped for this game. They know how important it is for us. So that’s really going to motivate them to be spoilers, so we want to come in focused and ready to play.”
Al Jefferson worked the Timberwolves for a career-high tying 40 points in a 107-100 home win over the Timberwolves on Friday night. The Jazz will need more of the same from him tonight if they are going to continue the fight for their playoff lives another day. The Timberwolves, on the other hand, control the Lakers’ destiny tonight.
HOUSTON ROCKETS at PHOENIX SUNS (10:00 p.m. ET, League Pass): The Rockets’ playoff bid was locked up last week, but they are clinging to that sixth seed right now with an opportunity to determine their own fate with wins, tonight in Phoenix and Wednesday against the Lakers. They already own the tiebreaker over Golden State by virtue of their 3-1 edge in the season series and they hold a 2-1 lead over the Lakers.
But they can’t slip up in these final two games. If they do, the Lakers will not only even the season series Wednesday night, they’ll gain the tiebreaker over the Rockets by virtue of their better record against Western Conference teams. The Rockets can render all of that critical minutiae useless by simply continuing to do what they have done during this recent stretch that has seen them win six of their last eight games, and that’s handle the business at hand.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS at GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (10:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV): This could end up being a first-round playoff preview for the Spurs and Warriors, who currently occupy the No. 2 and No. 7 seeds, respectively, in the Western Conference playoff order. The Spurs blew their chance to control their fate in the race for the top seed with the Oklahoma City Thunder by dropping that game Sunday night at Staples Center to the Kobe-less Lakers.
The Warriors have lost three of four, including that tight game against the Lakers Friday night in Los Angeles. Forget the seeding, they need to get back on a winning track heading into the playoffs, no matter who they face this weekend. “We don’t want to relax. We can’t afford to do that right now,” said Warriors guard Stephen Curry. “This is a big game for us to bounce back after two tough losses. It’s good preparation to know that every game means something for our seeding, and for our state of mind going into the playoffs.”