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Lakers' final push for West's final playoff spot promises drama

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After the ill-timed and stunning coaching change to start the season, the do-si-do with Phil Jackson, the hiring of Mike D'Antoni, the drama over whether Kobe and Dwight would get along, and the injuries -- oh, the humanity, all the injuries -- the Lakers are right where they should be with 10 days left in the regular season.

They're on the doorsteps of the playoffs, ringing the bell, understanding that whether they gain entry is entirely up to them.

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It's the latest strange twist in this bizarre Lakers season that their star-laden roster must play its way into the postseason. Any designs on the franchise's 17th NBA championship, and Kobe Bryant's elusive sixth, are secondary to simply making it into the tournament.

Clinging to a one-game lead in the loss column over Utah for the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference, the Lakers begin the final push Friday night against Memphis -- closing the season with six of seven games at Staples Center. If they fail to hold off Utah -- and further back, Dallas, which trails by three games -- the Lakers will have no one to blame but themselves.

It's interesting that this final push begins with a home game against the Grizzlies. Lakers soap opera devotees surely will recall that it was a loss at Memphis in January that marked the low point of their season -- a 106-93 defeat that dropped LA to 17-25. A confrontational team meeting earlier that day set an urgent tone that had been seriously lacking under D'Antoni to that point. Since then, the Lakers are 22-11.

They've seen Dwight Howard regain at least some of his mobility and defensive dominance after a long, painful-to-watch recovery from back surgery. Howard will never stop clowning around, apparently, but at least he's starting to play like Dwight Howard again. They've somehow coaxed some confidence back into Pau Gasol, who is starting to find his niche as a high-post playmaker in D'Antoni's offense.

They've had to manage defensively without Metta World Peace, who is out through at least the first round of the playoffs after knee surgery. They've had to manage defensively with Steve Nash, who at 39 is as overmatched as any point guard in the league as far as stopping penetration. He has also had a rough year physically, with hip and hamstring soreness the latest culprit keeping him on the sideline.

In Nash's absence, Bryant has settled back into the role of playmaker, and he has been on the floor an incredible 95 of a possible 96 minutes over the past two games -- averaging 21 points, 12.5 assists and 10 rebounds despite a debilitating case of bone spurs in his left foot. In a 20-point win over the Mavs on Tuesday night, Bryant had 23 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists, four steals and two blocks in 47 minutes.

There is nowhere to hide for Bryant and the Lakers, only seven games standing between them and a playoff berth. Barring a complete meltdown, they'll make it -- but it will have to be earned. The Jazz have six games left -- three home, three away, three against playoff teams. Five of the Lakers' seven remaining games are against playoff teams, though only one of the seven -- Tuesday at lottery-bound Portland -- is away from Staples Center.

On Sunday, the Lakers technically are the visiting team against the in-house rival Clippers, a team that has beaten them by 10, five and 24 points in their three meetings so far this season. (The 125-101 loss to the Clippers on Feb. 14, a Valentine's Day Massacre, was another of the lowest moments.) Then the playoff push finishes up with home games against Golden State, San Antonio and Houston -- three playoff teams that may or may not be in various stages of mailing it in to rest up for the postseason.

First, the Lakers will give us one more dramatic storyline in their pursuit of a playoff berth; other than the ever-more-unlikely return of Derrick Rose, it's all the NBA has going for it in this final chapter of the regular season. If the first 75 games of this Lakers season have been any indication, the final seven will not be lacking in drama.

Then, if they get in, what kind of realistic threat are they? Given Bryant's drive and hunger -- not to mention his play, which remains at an impossibly high level at age 34 -- the Lakers will always have a puncher's chance. Given Howard's improved health and game-changing defensive presence when he's mentally engaged, it would be unwise to underestimate him. It would also be unwise to think he can make up for all, or even most of the breakdowns that will result from the zero-percent chance that Nash has at controlling the penetration of Tony Parker (if healthy) or Russell Westbrook, depending on who the first-round opponent is.

Bryant presumably would get the bulk of those assignments, anyway, which would sap his energy at the offensive end and further imperil his injured ankle.

The final push begins this weekend with the Grizzlies and Clippers -- appropriate bookends for those nights in January and February when the Lakers looked impossibly lost.

Thankfully for the rest of us, however this turns out, one thing the Lakers have not lost this season is their ability to entertain.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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