Plenty still to be settled in the wacky West

Having trouble figuring out how the wacky West will be won?

You’re not alone. Even veteran postseason performers aren’t

quite sure this year.

“More than any other years, we don’t know who we’re going to

play. We don’t know where we’re going to be,” San Antonio coach

Gregg Popovich said. “And usually, we have a pretty good idea of

where, at least, we’re going to be. And that helps limit the work

that you do before the playoffs. This year, it’s a little

different.”

As the season heads into its final days, this much is certain:

The Los Angeles Lakers will be the No. 1 seed.

That’s it. Just about everything else is up for grabs.

“The whole Western Conference is a free-for-all,” Dallas coach

Rick Carlisle said. “So much is yet to be determined with three

games left.”

Four teams reached play Saturday with hopes of finishing second.

Three others were battling to avoid No. 8 and a first-round meeting

with the defending champion Lakers – who aren’t even playing as

well as some teams behind them.

“It’s interesting. It’s very competitive and teams are playing

really well and there are some very strong teams,” Lakers forward

Pau Gasol said. “It’ll be a big challenge for us even though we

are in the top spot.”

Dallas, Denver, Utah and Phoenix were all in the running for the

No. 2 seed. The difference between possible home-court advantage

for two rounds and not even having it for one was just a game.

So while the Lakers had the luxury of resting Kobe Bryant for

the postseason, everyone else out West was already facing

playoff-level pressure.

“It’s incredible,” Phoenix guard Steve Nash said Friday.

“It’s incredibly tight and close and exciting. We’ve just got to

keep fighting. We’ve got three games left and we’re going to try to

win all three.”

San Antonio and Portland lost Friday, leaving them the most

likely opponents for the Lakers – a scenario both teams want to

avoid. Just ahead of them were the Oklahoma City Thunder, about to

make their playoff debut and not afraid of a tough road when they

get there.

“Don’t get me wrong. The Lakers are a great team, a

championship team. … But we’re not scared to play anybody,”

All-Star Kevin Durant said. “If we happen to fall down to the

eighth spot or move up, we’re willing to play anybody.

“We’re not playing every game to go out there and say we don’t

want to get the eighth spot so we won’t play the Lakers. We’re just

trying to get as high as we can these last three games. We’ve just

got to come out and play. If we happen to slip up and play the

Lakers, then we’re going to go out there and play our game.”

The Lakers gave Bryant consecutive games off to rest, but the

decision Sunday against Portland is a little trickier. A win

increases the chances of a rematch with the Trail Blazers in the

playoffs, and Los Angeles has struggled at the Rose Garden in

recent years.

A Portland win means a greater likelihood for the Lakers of a

series against Tim Duncan and the playoff-tested Spurs.

“We have to protect our home court no matter what,” Gasol

said. “Whoever we face later on remains to be seen. It’ll be hard

regardless.”

The race for the No. 2 seed is just as tight and may not be

decided until Denver visits Phoenix on Tuesday, the second-to-last

night of the season. A victory in that game could mean a difference

of three spots in the standings.

San Antonio visits Southwest Division champion Dallas on

Wednesday, and that could be a preview of a first-round series.

Then again, things could look drastically different by then, and

probably will.

“It can change within a day or two, and you’ve got to flip

scripts, look at some other teams,” Popovich said. “It’s been an

unbelievably competitive year. Great for the fans. Great for the

NBA.”

The West mess resembled its race from two years ago, when all

eight playoff teams won at least 50 games and were separated by

only seven games in the standings. However, the postseason wasn’t

nearly as thrilling – the Lakers rolled through three rounds

against conference foes with a 12-3 record before losing to Boston

in the NBA finals.

It’s hard to imagine it being as easy this time, with San

Antonio, Portland or Oklahoma City all capable of providing a

first-round test. Win that, and then who knows what comes next.

“It gets better and better every year. It’s a fight,” Lakers

forward Lamar Odom said. “This is our third year winning it in a

row and something we should be proud of. But our goal is not over

yet. It’s not finished yet.”

Seems nothing is out West.

AP Sports Writers Jon Krawczynski in Minneapolis, Jeff Latzke in

Oklahoma City, Anne M. Peterson in Portland, Ore., and Paul Weber

in San Antonio contributed to this report.