The playoff picture shifted on Monday night as the Houston Rockets (45-36) lost on the road in Phoenix to the Suns.
The idle Lakers (44-37) have one game remaining – against the same Rockets who are now just one game ahead. By virtue of a better conference record, a Lakers’ victory would secure the seventh seed in the Western Conference, much to the delight of Kobe Bryant, who is out with a torn Achilles’ tendon.
There’s still no guarantee the Lakers even make the playoffs. If they lose to the Rockets on Wednesday, coupled with a Utah Jazz victory in Memphis against the Grizzlies, the Lakers will finish in ninth place.
The chance to climb to sixth place evaporated when the Golden State Warriors beat the San Antonio Spurs on Monday. The remaining possibilities are the seventh, eighth and ninth positions in the West.
If the Lakers climb to seven, they’ll draw the Spurs, who they’ve played well this season. Any playoff series will be a challenge for the Lakers with Bryant injured but San Antonio is a more-favorable matchup than the first-place Oklahoma City Thunder.
Additionally, the Grizzlies can give the Lakers some insurance by defeating the Jazz prior to the Lakers’ tipoff on Wednesday against the Rockets. Memphis is still chasing the Clippers. Even if the Clippers finish as the higher seed (as a division winner), the Grizzlies would have home court advantage if they lock in a higher record.
For example, if the Clippers finish at 55-27 and Memphis at 56-26, the Clippers would start the playoffs on the road as the four seed to the fifth-seeded Grizzlies. Memphis should be motivated to win instead of resting their starters (as teams commonly do once their playoff position is set).
Ultimately what the Grizzlies and Jazz do are irrelevant if the Lakers beat the Rockets, securing a first-round matchup against the Spurs instead of the Thunder. -Eric Pincus