is tonight’s lakers-nuggets a must-win for l.a.?

still much excitement left in the western conference between now and the end of the regular season.  case in point: tonight’s contest between l.a. and denver.  for denver, the game matters a lot in terms of where they’ll end the season in the western conference rankings, and in particular whether they’ll have home court advantage in rounds one and, possibly, two of the playoffs.  for the lakers, tonight’s game is important, but for a more subtle reason.  in the event they make the finals, it may affect on whose court the close-out game gets played.  of course, if cleveland is the eastern conference’s entry in the finals, it’s irrelevant.  but if orlando can beat cleveland, then the fact that orlando trails l.a. by only one game in the loss column as of today may be important.  the lakers have two games against quality opponents remaining with five left to play (denver and portland, with what should be “easy” games against the clips, twolves, and kings to fill it out), while the magic face only one, cleveland, with four to go (the others being the knicks, indiana, and philly).

to my mind, orlando, despite the weaker record, is well-positioned to upset the king and his court.  orlando has a very clear offensive structure and a nasty d.  in contrast, cleveland strikes me as a bunch of guys more than a team per se.  guys with talent, to be sure, but i’m never quite sure what they’ll go to when tested, whereas with orlando you get the sense that they have a much clearer sense of their go-to sets, of what they’re (all) going to do when things get tight.  of course, in cleveland, the go-to set consists of handing the ball to lebron somewhere beyond the 3-point line, and see what happens.  very often, what happens is good, ’cause he’s so hard to stop.  beyond that, in a weird way, maybe it’s hard to set up a defensive scheme for a club with an amorphous O like cleveland.  that said, orlando plays a very well-run, diversified offense.  they’re strong, and they’re deep, and every player seems very clear on his role.  i don’t get the sense that when things get tense they’ll start to question what they’re doing, while i think that cleveland may.  the bottom line is, while cleveland may be a favorite, i don’t count them a big favorite against orlando, and i would not in the least be surprised to see orlando return to the finals…

if that happens, the lakers may need to win out during the regular season to be sure that the finals end in staples ctr.  tonight’s game against denver represents their toughest remaining challenge, and so maybe, in an odd way, the lakers need to see this game as a must-win.

we’ll see…

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