With the Los Angeles Lakers showing signs of life, the battle at the Western Conference of the National Basketball Association intensifies, especially at the middle.
Struggling to climb up the ranks with their first 40 games, the inspired play of the Lakers, who lost well-loved owner Jerry Buss last February to cancer, helped them reach the .500 mark after having played 60 matches. The gold and purple squad are now standing at 9th place in the West, and continues to climb up the ranks with the way they are playing right now.
After sending the Atlanta Hawks back to their nests with a 99-98 victory last March 3, the Lakers are posting serious threat to the Golden State Warriors, Utah Jazz, and Houston Rockets, who are boxing each other out at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff seeding. With the Lakers finally joining the fray, these three teams may lose grip of their present position at the moment in a matter of two or three games.
With the Lakers seemingly clicking on all cylinders now, the three teams above them may have acquired the curse that LA had at the beginning of the season. But strong as they are, these teams will surely box for their places. How would they exorcise the curse? Let's find out.
Golden State Warriors (33-27) (.550)
Currently at 6th place in the chaotic West standings, the Warriors are currently buried in questions after losing 4 games straight prior to hosting the Toronto Raptors this March 4. Stephen Curry had one of the most memorable Madison Square Garden performances when he dropped 54 on 11 of 13 shooting from trey in a loss to the Knicks. Curry, being on the brightest spot in their rotation as of now, would be the Warriors' antidote to the four game losing streak. With All-Star David Lee not in his usual self after being suspended for a game after his altercation with Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert, Curry would need to spice things up for his team if they want to tighten their grasp of the fifth place. In addition to that, a superb bench contribution would be a positive, led by second unit floor leader Jarrett Jack. With offensive bursts from Curry and Jack, and with Lee coming out big to be David Lee again, the Warriors may grab sixth seed come playoff time. That seem to be their maximum especially now that the Denver Nuggets are way ahead of them with a .63 winning percentage.
Utah Jazz (32-27) (.542)
If there is a team on the short term who need to value a W more than life itself, it would be the Utah Jazz. I mean, they are at seventh place because the Houston Rockets have one loss more than them yet the Jazz have one win less than Houston. If ever the Lakers tie whoever for 8th or 7th, the Utah Jazz would be an easy target either to tie or to break. The Jazz have one of the weirdest and unusual rotations in the league, and even a more unusual record. For a team who has no clear franchise player, a mediocre basketball fan may level them with the Bobcats in their present roster. But the Jazz are winning underdogs who don' look like underdogs. There are no significant numbers under their belts but their willingness to survive placed them on wherever they are right now. They have no franchise player at all but it's clear that with the averages of 17.7 points, and 9.8 rebounds per game, Al Jefferson is their best player. And with his broad shoulders, the Jazz are on a lift. Continuous intensity with their spirit and defense may catapault them through the playoffs. But falling off the standings wouldn't be a surprise for this team.
Houston Rockets (33-28) (.541)
The Rockets are leading the NBA in points per game which determines them as the top offensive team in the league. And why not? They have one of the most offensive minded player in James Harden and a point guard who pulls surprises out of the blue in Jeremy Lin. The 136-103 explosion vs Dallas could be a statement that they wouldn't fall out that easy. With winning percentage involved, the Rockets may play around the 6th-8th seed in a matter of three games, depending on how Utah deals with Milwaukee and the Warriors' dance with the Raptors. One thing is for sure for Houston, playoffs odd is at 3:1 at the moment. Being seeded 8th right now, their first priority is not stopping the Lakers from breaking through the playoff picture. Rather, they must focus on how they join LA in climbing up the ranks before April. That wouldn't be impossible now that they have Thomas Robinson, the young gun acquired from Sacramento who was the 5th overall pick in last year's draft. The Rockets' primary ammo is their youth and their ability to stretch the floor on offense. They are second in the league in 3-point shooting percentage and leads the league in ball protection with just 15 turnovers per ball game. Offense. That is their primary weapon as of now. Despite being 8th, the Rockets aren't handling the pressure after 60 games played because of the way they are playing, and the way Harden is leading the team. The troops they are chasing hold the most pressure now that Houston and LA are playing their best of this season.
With the sudden surge of the Lakers, stability of the Jazz, the offensive prowess of the Rockets, and of course misfortunes of the Warriors, the lower half of the playoff bracket for the Western Conference is at serious war right now. But as fans, we all know that a chaotic standing means interest and fun. And for LA fans, a playoffs featuring two LA teams would be heavenly, especially for Laker fans who thought their team has been busted out of contention. Now the Lakers would have to define their identity, for the real challenges are yet to start soon. Actually soon as their next game, Tuesday, against OKC.