Lakers seem locked at No. 3 in the Western Conference

A few breathtaking shots may have spared the Lakers some drama over the final weeks of the regular season.

Kobe Bryant’s rim-rattling three-pointer in the final seconds Tuesday against New Jersey and his late 22-foot jumper against the Clippers on Wednesday gave the Lakers a pair of victories that appear to have locked them into the No. 3 playoff spot in the Western Conference.

The Lakers (35-20) heading into Thursday were 2 1/2 games ahead of the fourth-place Clippers (32-22), which amounts to a 3 1/2-game advantage since the Lakers won the season series and hold the tiebreaker against their Pacific Division rivals. The Clippers play at Sacramento on Thursday night.

Conversely, the Lakers trail second-place San Antonio (38-14) by 4 1/2 games, a lot of ground to make up with only 11 games left for the Lakers in the regular season. And the Spurs, who have won nine of their last 10 games to move within one game of Oklahoma City for the conference’s top spot, aren’t exactly fading.

Not that Bryant is pessimistic about the Lakers’ chances to move up in the standings. “Yeah, we have no shot at getting the second one,” he said flatly when asked whether the Lakers were probably going to stay in the No. 3 spot.


What about being 4 1/2 games behind San Antonio?

“Daunting task,” Bryant continued in deadpan fashion.

The Lakers do have one hope to catch the Spurs: the teams play each other three times in a span of 10 days beginning Wednesday in San Antonio. They also will meet April 17 at Staples Center and April 20 in San Antonio.

Potential first-round playoff opponents for the Lakers include Dallas, Memphis, Houston and Denver. A Lakers-Clippers matchup in the first round remains a possibility if the Clippers falter a bit over the season’s final weeks.

“Obviously, you always want to finish as high as you can [in the standings], but at the same time, as we all know, that’s not a guarantee for anything,” Lakers forward Pau Gasol said. “I think the most important thing is to get to the playoffs, get to the moment at your top game playing the best you can and with everybody healthy and ready to go.”

The Lakers did not practice Thursday. Should the Lakers decide at some point that their remaining regular-season games hold little significance, they could curtail Bryant’s minutes to give him a breather before the playoffs. Bryant is averaging 38.5 minutes per game, fourth most among all NBA players and significantly more than the 33.9 minutes he averaged last season.

Bryant is also nursing discomfort in his left shin, prompting him to wear a shin guard during games and a protective walking boot afterward.

“It’s a fashion statement,” he joked.

A familiar fade

The Lakers led Golden State by 15 points … and let the Warriors come within three before pulling out a victory. They held a 17-point advantage against New Jersey … and needed Bryant’s late heroics after the Nets tied the score. They were ahead of the Clippers by 15 points … and eventually trailed by one on the way to a triumph.

See a pattern here?

“We’re trying to work on that now,” Lakers Coach Mike Brown said. “We addressed it [Tuesday] and we’ll continue to address it and hopefully it won’t happen [again].”

Bryant attributed the Lakers’ letdown against the Clippers to shoddy play at the start of the fourth quarter. The Clippers scored eight consecutive points while the Lakers missed their first five shots and committed a turnover on a shot-clock violation.

“We didn’t execute very well at all,” Bryant said. “We turned the ball over a great deal, took some rushed shots. So it’s just about execution in those situations.”