Though ESPN presently puts Los Angeles' chances of making the playoffs just below that of coin toss (47.3 percent), the prospect of Kobe Bryant and company clawing their way into the postseason has never seemed more likely.
With 22 games to go and the Lakers sitting just 2.5 games back of both the Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz, a now foreign feeling of optimism is beginning to set in. The realization that they can do this now resonates with more than just the hopelessly sanguine.
But how far is this realization going to carry them?
Say the Lakers make the playoffs (which I believe they will). What happens next is unknown; it has hardly been spoken of.
Since falling to the depths of the lottery, there has been but one goal in mind: Make the playoffs. Everything else has taken a backseat. Nothing is as important.
When staring down the barrel of a potentially postseason-loaded gun, however, ignoring what lies ahead is no longer an option. The time for sheer hope, for desperation has come to pass. We've now reached the point of preparation.
And knowing how much adversity the Lakers must ultimately wade through to reach the postseason, it's difficult not to be slightly intrigued at their potential to make a Cinderella-esque run.
Ignoring conventional parameters that stipulate $100 million coalitions aren't your typical underdog stories, why can't Los Angeles make a run to remember? Why can't the Lakers shock the very masses that have come to doubt and even discredit them? Why can't they defy the odds and win it all?
Name-dropping alone suggests such a thought process isn't all that far-fetched. A team that has Bryant, Dwight Howard, and Steve Nash in the same starting lineup and a potentially healthy (albeit unhappy) Pau Gasol coming off bench is one to be reckoned with.
What remains to be seen is whether it's one that can not only contend with, but consistently defeat the top teams in the Western Conference.
As it stands, the Lakers are still within striking distance of the sixth seed (three game back). Barring a massive collapse by the Denver Nuggets, it is then safe to assume Los Angeles won't finish any higher than sixth, and even that's optimistic.
The San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers all appear to have a comfortable lock on the top three seeds. Of those three then, the Lakers are destined to face one in the first-round.
Against these three teams, the Lakers are a combined 1-7 on the season (so far), with their lone victory coming over the Thunder. Regular season outings don't exactly take precedence over everything else in the playoffs, but Los Angeles' inability to remain competitive with the top three teams is discouraging.
Just as troubling is the Lakers' showing against above .500 teams in general. They're 12-22 when facing winning ball clubs. To make matters worse, 10 of those 12 wins have come at home, rendering Hollywood's finest 2-14 on the road against winning teams.
Los Angeles isn't going to have homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. In fact, assuming the Lakers don't go on an unprecedented surge and a smattering of upsets don't occur come postseason time, they're unlikely to have it even if they begin advancing.
And it gets even worse.
Should the Lakers snag the eighth-seed, their quest for an NBA Finals berth could realistically run through each of the top three teams. Any Los Angeles upset pulls them the next higher seed in this instance.
Determined and inspired as the Lakers may be, a gauntlet consisting of the Spurs, Thunder and Clippers is not one they're likely to navigate successfully.
Admittedly, this is just one of many scenarios, and in an obnoxiously deep Western Conference, there's really no favorable matchup. Each (potentially) playoff-bound team can play elite basketball on any given night, for any given stretch. Upsets are then not uncommon because they're not as implausible.
Let's not beguile ourselves into believing they're especially common, though, either. Only last season, the top two seeds (San Antonio and Oklahoma City) met in the Conference Finals and just one top four team (Memphis) didn't make it out of the first round.
But these are the Lakers we're talking about. Anything is possible. They were built to break such a trend; they were built to contend.
The thing is, thus far, they haven't. Not even slightly.
Injuries, revolving lineups and a lack of depth have killed them. Clinching a postseason berth in itself was hardly their ceiling even a week ago. Are we to actually believe they can make it out of the first-round unscathed?
Los Angeles won't be as overmatched in the playoffs as the franchise is now. Shorter rotations become fixtures, and the Lakers are no strangers to shorthanded blueprints. And (most likely) having Gasol back in the fold should (hopefully) strengthen their attack.
That doesn't change the fact that they'll have little to no time to tie it all together. Gasol's return doesn't present any guarantees. Los Angeles was 23-26 when Pau went down, so the team wasn't exactly rolling.
Even when putting that aside, a deep playoff run seems close to out of the question. The Lakers aren't just trying to break a trend that dictates higher seeds defeat the lower ones. They're trying to break their own trend as well.
Again, I point you to that 2-14 record on the road against outfits above .500. Those are the types of teams the Lakers will be squaring off against on a daily basis come playoff time. Those are the same types of teams they've been unable to beat overall (12-22), let alone on the road (2-14).
And this is a trend that has continued during the team's most recent stretch. They're 13-5 in their last 18, and 5-4 against playoff-bound squads in their last nine. Just two of those five wins came on the road, though, and just one of them was against a Western Conference foe.
So can the Lakers pull off a first-round upset?
They've got an unrelenting Kobe and an eighth-ranked offense that say "yes."
Can they pull off a series of upsets and move beyond the semifinals?
I'll never say never, but they've got a debilitating record against playoff caliber teams that emphatically implies "no."
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82Games.com unless otherwise noted.
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