After the Denver Nuggets managed to hang on against the Los Angeles Lakers tonight, winning by a final of 98-96, the Lakers' record dropped to 55-23, bringing them into a tie with the Orlando Magic for the NBA's second-best overall record. Should the teams finish with identical records, the Lakers would have home-court advantage in a hypothetical 2009 Finals rematch, meaning Orlando must finish at least one game ahead of L.A. in the standings in order to ensure it would host the first 2 Finals games against L.A. should that pairing come to pass.
Coach Stan Van Gundy has made it clear to his players and to the media that beating L.A. in the standings is one of his team's top goals; he's not going with the "we're not worried about anyone but ourselves" approach that's more common in professional sports. Knowing that securing homecourt advantage is a priority of the Magic's, it's prudent here to look at both teams' remaining schedules.
|L.A. Lakers||Orlando Magic|
|OPP||OPP%||Against||Own b2b||Opp b2b||OPP||OPP%||Against||Own b2b||Opp b2b|
|"2" road||.366||8-2||2||1||2 road||.463||8-3||1||0|
Initially, the schedule favors L.A., which will play 3 teams in the bottom third of the league's overall standings. Assuming the Lakers take care of business against them, and lose to Portland--which will have something at stake, as it's currently in a three-way tie for the sixth seed in the West--they'll finish with a 58-24 record. Orlando would thus have to win out in order to gain homecourt advantage over the Lakers. And though its schedule isn't brutal by any means, it gives the Magic very little margin for error.
But there's reason for hope. As John Schuhmann wrote two days ago, the Lakers have played mediocre ball since the All-Star break, ranking 15th in efficiency differential. They're vulnerable, and perhaps primed for a letdown. Last night, coach Phil Jackson elected to rest Kobe Bryant, and the team is still without Andrew Bynum.
On the other hand, Orlando's won 16 of its last 19 games and has no significant injuries to report. Van Gundy plans to play his top players heavy minutes heading into the playoffs, since none has logged too many minutes so far this season. They're flooring it, so to speak, in the final five days of the season.
It's hard to tell exactly how it'll all shake out, but in the final analysis, the Magic must hope L.A. loses at least one of its remaining games, and preferably two.