Kiki’s NBA Cuts: Here come the Lakers

As of right now the Lakers are currently tied for the eighth spot in the Western Conference playoff race. They have pulled even with the Utah Jazz and finally seem to be headed in the right direction.

The Lakers have gone 16-6 since Jan. 23 when they were eight games below 500. Coincidentally, that was right around the time Kobe Bryant guaranteed the Lakers would be in the playoffs.

Why the change?

First let’s start with Kobe Bryant. The Mamba or Vino (his new nick name) is just as deadly as ever and, like fine wine, just improves with age. Over the last nine games he has averaged a league best 35 points a game and close to double-digit assists. He consistently takes the toughest guard defensively and has emerged as the spiritual and emotional leader of the Lakers. Last week, he was named Western Conference Player of the Week, averaging an NBA-best 33 points, 8.8 assists, 5.8 rebounds and one steal per game. During that time he put together back-to-back 40 point games as the Lakers went 3-1.

Dwight Howard has reclaimed his athleticism, averaging 15.4 points per game and 14.1 rebounds since the All-Star break. He has controlled the paint on a more consistent basis, reestablishing his dominance at the center position. He is second in the league in paint touches to Utah’s Al Jefferson. For the first time all year, he seems to be healthy and enjoying playing basketball again.

Steve Nash looks a great deal more comfortable, consistently putting up better offensive numbers. Meta-World Peace has always been a little underrated as a basketball player and is playing inspired. Earl Clark has been a pleasant surprise and continues to impress on both ends of the court. The most underrated addition has been the return of Steve Blake. Blake is an excellent shooter and playmaker and is able to play with either Bryant or Nash.

Let’s also get one final thing out of the way right here and now. Mike D’Antoni is an excellent basketball coach. His offensive style while in Phoenix changed the way the game is played. He is also underrated defensively. Mike also has tremendous people skills and is one of the nicest guys in basketball.

Playoff Race
Most teams in the NBA have less than 20 games to play in the regular season. The Western Conference is pretty much set at the one through five playoff positions. San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets, all appear to be playoff locks. The positions may change a little bit due to injury or schedule, but the positions going into the playoffs will be pretty much as they are.

The interesting part of the playoff race is the bottom three Western Conference positions, currently held by the Golden State Warriors in sixth, Houston Rockets in seventh and the Los Angeles Lakers holding down eighth place. But how will they finish?

First let’s talk about the Utah Jazz, tied with the Lakers in the eighth position. They will finish in the regular season just out of the playoffs in the 9th spot. They have lost the last 7 of 9 . The Jazz are a very young team and do not have the firepower to stay the playoff race.

The Golden State Warriors, losers of 12 of last 18 will most likely finish in the eighth spot. The Warriors are an extremely dangerous scoring team with some of the best shooters in basketball. They also have David Lee, a double-double machine. Andrew Bogut has returned but he is not the same guy the Warriors hoped when they traded for him. Lingering injury has slowed his comeback, but when healthy he is one of the better centers in the NBA. Most likely they will play San Antonio in the first round and that could lead to a quick exit.

The Houston Rockets will finish right where they are in seventh place. They finish with their last 12 to 18 on the road and over half of their opponents have +.500 records. James Harden and Omar Asik have had breakout seasons. The Rockets have playoff veteran Kevin McHale as their coach and when shooting the ball well can challenge anybody. Unfortunately, James Harden will return home and play the Oklahoma City Thunder. Fun to watch but the Thunder will have home-court advantage and are just too good.

The Los Angeles Lakers are tied for 8th and  will finish in sixth place. They are playing inspired basketball and if they can stay healthy will only get better. The one concern I have for the Lakers is, too many minutes for Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. The Lakers have put on such a great push but they need to be rested going into the playoffs. If they can continue winning, look for Mike D’Antoni to start cutting back the minutes for some of his veterans.

If the Lakers finish in the sixth spot, they would play the Los Angeles Clippers. This would be an epic battle for Los Angeles basketball dominance. The Clippers are one of the elite NBA teams and playing the best basketball in franchise history. The Lakers are built more for playoff basketball. Emotions will be running high on this one and will capture the imagination of NBA fans everywhere. Lob City versus the new version of Showtime!

Can I get my tickets now?

Game of the Week
On Wednesday night the Los Angeles Clippers play the Memphis Grizzlies. They are neck and neck and this game could decide the three and four spot in the Western Conference playoff race. Their styles are completely different but both are playing excellent basketball. The Grizzlies are a hard-nosed defensive team that sometimes struggles to score after the trade of Rudy Gay. The Clippers are the most exciting team in basketball, with an underrated defensive attack but sometimes bog down in a half-court game.

Zach Randolph has not played the last two games and will be questionable. The Clippers stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are playing at an elite level. The Clippers bench is superior when fully healthy but Jamaal Crawford and Eric Bledsoe have missed the last few games.

The game is played at Staples Center and in this one the Clippers have a decided advantage.