With the beginning of April comes an end to college basketball. March Madness will officially come to a close next Tuesday, but basketball fans should have no reason to worry. Why? Because just a little over a week down the road begins the NBA playoffs.
Slated to begin April 21, most teams have about seven games remaining in their regular season. This means crunch time for several teams looking to secure those last few playoff spots.
In the East, the teams that will enter the postseason are pretty much locked up. After its 27-game win streak, the Miami Heat has secured the top seed in the Eastern Conference and probably in the league.
Teams one through seven have guaranteed their spots in postseason play. The only team not locked in is Milwaukee, but with a six-game lead over ninth-place Philadelphia, there’s very little chance that the Bucks won’t be part of the playoffs.
The rest of the teams may see changes in seeding, but overall, the East is set and should be very exciting heading into playoffs. While the conference will be Miami’s to win or lose (and it would be extremely surprising if they don’t win), seeds two through seven are all extremely competitive and should feature some very competitive series.
The West, on the other hand, is a very different story.
At the top of the conference, San Antonio and Oklahoma City are still neck and neck. Personally, I don’t really think it matters who wins the conference because in the end, the Thunder’s youth and athleticism will be too much to handle for even a great veteran team like the Spurs.
The bottom of the Western Conference, though, features a very tight race for that coveted eighth spot. It looks like Houston will take seventh, but the fight for the last spot comes down to Los Angeles and Utah.
The Lakers currently hold the eighth seed at 39-36. Just a half-game behind is the Jazz at 39-37, who would win the tiebreaker if the two teams were to tie.
L.A. comes off a crucial victory Tuesday night against Dallas in which it won convincingly 101-81. The win was not only important to take the lead over the Jazz, but also created a two-and-a-half game gap between Dallas and a playoff spot, making it just a two-man race to enter the postseason.
Utah has won five of its last six, but neither team has an easy schedule down the stretch. Utah has six games remaining, the Lakers seven, and both teams have only Western Conference teams remaining on the schedule. For both teams, the majority of their opponents coming up are seeded higher and they will play three of the same opponents, so in this case, the best team should win.
Nevertheless, I give the advantage to the Lakers. The first reason is because they have more games at home to end the regular season. Los Angeles will play five of its final seven games at home, which gives it an edge over its tougher competition. Utah, meanwhile, will only play three of its final six games at home.
In addition, the Lakers have Kobe Bryant. Love him or hate him, the guy knows how to play under pressure. He’s got six rings and I’m sure has no plans of sitting out the best time of the year for a pro basketball player.
He’s averaging 27.0 points per game, third best in the NBA, and if it weren’t for his team’s subpar year that didn’t come close to meeting the large expectations put upon the star-packed Lakers, and LeBron James, Bryant would be considered in the MVP voting.
For the most part, the team has gained all its pieces back too. Steve Nash continues to sit out with hip and hamstring injuries, but quite honestly, the Lakers are just as good without Nash as they are with him. Without Nash, Bryant becomes not just a scorer, but also the facilitator, and the Lakers have been very good when Bryant breaks into single digits in the assist category.
It will be interesting to see how the Lakers do with both Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol healthy and on the floor together, but in the end, the team just has too much talent. Someone (aka Bryant) will step up and lead the Lakers into the playoffs.
Like in the East though, I don’t think it really matters who takes the final spot when it comes down to who will play in the NBA Finals. Oklahoma City and San Antonio will most likely be the two teams competing for the chance to play Miami, as they have been the superior teams in the West all season long.
Unfortunately for any teams at the bottom of either conference, this isn’t March Madness. It takes four games to defeat a team in a series and playing that one miracle game won’t get you very far.
This article is an online exclusive and did not appear in the print edition of the Daily Nexus.