The playoff path that awaits the Lakers is starting to come into view. Despite seven straight wins, including an unexpectedly resounding Sunday romp in San Antonio, they're still too far behind the Spurs to harbor realistic hopes of landing the top seed. They have, however, put ample real estate between themselves and the fourth-place Oklahoma City Thunder. The Dallas Mavericks and the Lakers will finish the regular season second and third in the West, or vice versa, and barring upsets will face each other in the second round.
As for the Lakers' first-round opponent, all we know right now is that whoever it is won't be as dangerous as the Thunder were last year. The OKC squad that took the champs to six games won 50 in the regular season, and if anything that understates how good they were. This spring, the sixth and seventh seeds in the West are likely to finish with 45 or 46 wins. (The projected final standings of both ESPN's John Hollinger and Basketball Reference are in harmony on this.) Two from a group of four teams - the Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Hornets and Portland Trail Blazers - will probably occupy those slots. If the Phoenix Suns or Houston Rockets get crazy hot, they could climb into the picture, but they're behind the pack and would be thrilled just finishing eighth.
So, which of the four likely candidates should Laker fans want to see in the first round? It depends in part on what kind of first-round series you prefer. One school of thought holds that a challenging playoff opener is ideal, as a form of shock therapy to jolt a team into postseason form as soon as possible. I'm not a big fan of this theory, either in principle or as applied to this edition of the Lake Show. For one thing, getting tested in the first round is only a good thing when viewed retrospectively, after a team has safely come out the other side. There's a thin line between "getting tested" and "getting eliminated," and I'd prefer the Lakers stay as far from that line as possible.
For another thing, the Lakers are old. They're old, and they've played a ton of games the last few years. The more rest they get between series, the better, so I'm hoping for an opponent they can quickly bomb into submission. With that in mind, here's how I assess the champs' possible first-round targets, from softest to most heavily fortified.
Likely Sweep: New Orleans Hornets
No good team matches up less well with the Lakers. Andrew Bynum and Paul Gasol tower over the Hornets' front line, there's no A-list shooting guard to make Kobe Bryant work on defense, and Chris Paul isn't the type of full-speed-ahead, assault-the-rim point guard that typically gives the Lakers trouble. The Hornets have lost six of their last seven to L.A. and nine of 12 since Pau came over from Memphis.
Unfortunately, New Orleans looks like a decent bet to slide down to the eighth seed, if not fall out of the playoffs altogether. Over their last 19 games, they're a ghastly 6-13. Paul is out with a concussion and before the injury was playing some of the worst ball of his career. Midseason trades that brought in Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry have been sideways moves, at best. Should they find themselves in a first-round matchup with the Lakers, they'll be a nail just begging for a hammer.
Five-Game Speed Bump: Denver Nuggets
The assumption all year long was that losing Carmelo Anthony would relegate the Nuggs to lotterydom. This now appears mistaken. Since dealing Anthony, Denver is 6-2 and has posted victories over the Grizzlies, Celtics and Hawks. Currently fifth in the West, the Nuggets are well positioned to reach the playoffs even if the near-term morale boost from finally ridding themselves of the Melo angst fades, as one might expect.
Denver would have a couple things going for it in a matchup with the Lakers. Point guard Ty Lawson has a speed advantage over Derek Fisher in roughly the same way that a Dodge Viper has a speed advantage over a two-story, midcentury house. Arron Afflalo guards Kobe as respectably as anyone. J.R. Smith, Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler could get hot and steal a win with some ridiculous three-point shooting. But too much Laker size and a been-there-done-that comfort level from having played so many recent playoff games in Denver would keep the series short.
Frisky But Manageable: Memphis Grizzlies
Between now and the middle of April, you'll read many, many articles describing the Grizzlies as "the team no one wants to face in the first round." Whether that's accurate, I suppose, is all in one's perspective. I suspect that whoever winds up playing, say, the Boston Celtics in the first round would be more than happy to trade for the Grizzlies. But I get what people are trying to say. The Grizz are a pesky bunch that seem to be improving game by game.
Memphis is one of only two teams to have beaten the Lakers twice this season. (The Spurs are the other.) They have good size in the paint and, in Shane Battier and Tony Allen, two bros who know what it's like to chase Kobe around in the playoffs. They're also tough on the offensive boards, a useful trait inasmuch as defensive rebounding has been a Laker sore spot all season. They probably don't have enough scoring pop to throw a real scare into the champs, but it's not hard to imagine them taking a game or even two at FedEx Forum.
Series Could Go Long: Portland Trail Blazers
Having collected wins on their last two stops into Portland, the Lakers seem to have broken the spell the Rose Garden once held over them. Even so, the hatred of Blazer fans toward their imagined SoCal rivals would turn the Lakers' playoff visits to Portland into unruly, combustible affairs. There's some potential here for a series akin to Boston's seven-game fight with the Hawks back in 2008, where one team holds a clear talent advantage but the underdogs scrape together three wins thanks to their clamorous home court.
And the Blazers have done some things to shrink that talent advantage a smidge. At the trade deadline they acquired Gerald Wallace, who together with LaMarcus Aldridge and Marcus Camby gives them a credible shot at standing toe to toe with the Lakers' bigs. Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum are decent wing defenders, and who knows, with plenty of rest between games, maybe Brandon Roy could find some of his old playoff magic. Like the other challengers listed above, the Blazers aren't likely to inject any real suspense into a first-round series with the champs, but despite all the love being thrown the Grizzlies' way, it's the Blazers I'm most hoping the Lakers can avoid.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.