- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- If the Los Angeles Lakers played in the East, the motivation to finish with the best record in the conference would be palpable, as the teams vying for the No. 8 seed -- the Toronto Raptors, Charlotte Bobcats and Miami Heat -- are all floating around the .500 mark.
Meanwhile, the first-round playoff reward for Los Angeles should it finish atop the West is likely the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers or Phoenix Suns, all teams with records 10 games above .500 or better.
The Lakers start their upcoming five-game road trip with two of those teams, the Spurs and Thunder, on Wednesday and Friday.
Kobe Bryant says that with just 12 games remaining in the regular season, the Lakers are starting to wonder which team they will start the playoffs against.
"You look at it a little bit; you start following the standings a little bit more just out of mere curiosity to know who you'll be playing," Bryant said Monday after the team met to take the official photo for the 2009-10 season (they do it after the trade deadline so it reflects how the roster looks at the end of the season). "But, for the most part, you just stay focused on the next game."
Even if the Lakers already knew their first-round opponent, it wouldn't offer much solace. Every scenario offers its challenges. The Suns are a veteran bunch with a balanced inside-outside attack led by Amar'e Stoudemire and Steve Nash. The Spurs have banded together after Tony Parker's hand injury and are impeccably coached thanks to Gregg Popovich. The Thunder are young and confident, and the Blazers have the Lakers' number in Portland.
There's that old phrase,"You pick your battles," but in the Lakers' case, there's no use trying to pick because it's going to be a battle no matter what.
"We have never involved ourselves in that," coach Phil Jackson said. "There's obviously choices, but we've always said, 'That team would be really tough if we had to play them,' or whatever, but it's never, 'We don't want to play this team.'
"I think all the teams that are going to be opponents in the West [this year] are going to be good," Jackson continued. "We have teams that are fighting to see what position they are going to be in, sixth-seventh-eighth, that are all very good basketball clubs. There really isn't much that separates eight from five at this point and time."
The Lakers became the first team in the West to clinch a playoff berth Thursday, and when Jackson was told about the feat after the win against the Minnesota Timberwolves, he barely batted an eyelash.
There's no time for celebrating a minor accomplishment like that when a championship is the goal. That's why Jackson said that a successful mark on the upcoming road trip would be 5-0 and that going 4-1 would be merely "acceptable" but "not what champions look for."
He's trying to ramp up the team for a postseason that will be difficult from the very start. Last season, L.A. found itself in an unexpected seven-game series against the Houston Rockets in the second round. There's no guarantee the Lakers won't face a series like that in every round this year.
It wouldn't be the first time the Lakers had to pound it out in the postseason.
"I was just talking to Dr. [Jerry] Buss about it this morning," Jackson said. "He was here and actually mentioned the fact that it's never a good practice [to worry about who your playoff opponent will be] when we were talking about it. We talked about the time we went through the three toughest teams in the West in Portland, San Antonio and Sacramento [in 2001 and 2002]. Somehow or other, that makes your team really prepped for a championship round."
Los Angeles is 52-18 and riding a six-game winning streak. Andrew Bynum said it's the team goal to finish with 60 wins. Ron Artest said he wants L.A. to win out. Bryant said that no matter how hot the Lakers finish the season, they are readying themselves for a first-round rumble.
"All the years that we've won, except for the second championship run, we've had tough playoffs series and been pushed to the brink of elimination, even in the first round, and we went into the playoffs playing extremely well," Bryant said.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
All of the Lakers' potential first-round matchups present challenges.