Wood's Word: The eighth and final playoff spot




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I wrote last week’s column about Utah’s final and crucial stretch of the regular season. The Jazz had only a few games left, and I knew that the season would come down to the wire.

I didn’t imagine the storyline would unfold the way it has.   

The Jazz are battling the Los Angeles Lakers for the eighth and final playoff seed in the Western Conference. This ongoing competition between the two teams has been going on since the month of March, and each team has seen its ups and downs.

The Jazz had higher hopes of entering the playoff when March began, but the simple truth is that the Lakers have played better basketball down the stretch. Both teams had difficult schedules last month, and the majority of each team’s games came on the road. The Jazz, however, are notoriously ineffective on the road, and it may end up costing them the season.

The Lakers have had another dramatic year, keeping the TV sport networks feeling like each day is Christmas morning. After adding Dwight Howard and Steve Nash (two All-Stars) in the offseason, L.A. fired their first coach just a few games into the season and found a new coach in Mike D’Antoni — a former NBA Coach of the Year. With a roster of Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace, the Lakers looked like a lock to match the Miami Heat in the NBA finals. The roster looked good on paper, but the team has been faced with injury and a lack of motivation due to a spotlight big enough for only one — this, of course, being Kobe.

It has been Kobe Bryant, however, that has kept this team alive thus far. At 34 years old, an aging Kobe has played more minutes this season than young stars Kevin Durant and Weber State favorite Damian Lillard, each being in his early 20s. Kobe has averaged 46 minutes per game in the Lakers’ last 16 matches, and he played all 48 minutes of last Wednesday’s match against Lillard and the Trail Blazers. Bryant had big numbers against Portland, including 47 points, eight rebounds, five assists, four blocks and three steals. Kobe may be old, but he hasn’t been playing like it — until now.

The biggest news out of the weekend may be that of Bryant’s likely-torn Achilles tendon. In the win against the Golden State Warriors on Friday night, Bryant injured his left ankle on a routine play with only a few minutes to go in the game. Kobe was on his way to play all 48 minutes once again. Not only does this likely end the season for Bryant, but rumors are scattered that it could stop his career as a whole.

Despite a victory from Utah on Friday night, the Lakers won their match and maintain their one-game lead on the Jazz. As of Saturday afternoon, each team has two games left — certainly the two most important games of the season.

The Utah Jazz will play their final games on the road, and the Lakers will play theirs at home. L.A. must face San Antonio and Houston (two very challenging opponents) for their last matches, and the Jazz will play Minnesota and Memphis. The Jazz are 2-0 against Minnesota this year, and they hold a record of 1-2 against Memphis.

In order for Utah to make the playoffs, they must win both games and Los Angeles needs to go 1-1. Although both games come at home, the chance for a Lakers loss has now greatly increased with the absence of an injured Kobe Bryant. Two straight road wins at Minnesota and Memphis will be an unlikely feat for the Jazz, but perhaps one desperate last push will get them the victory they must attain and secure them into the final playoff spot.