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Lotto Watch: Playoffs?! Playoffs?!?

Here's where the Western Conference stands as of January 29, just over halfway through the season.

Six teams are veritable locks for the playoffs: Phoenix, Dallas, San Antonio, Utah, Houston, and the Lakers. The Lakers - the sixth seed currently - are 10 games over .500. To finish the season at 41-41, they'd have to go 14-24 the rest of the way. Unless Kobe Bryant gets decapitated, that's not going to happen. All the teams above the Lakers currently are in even stronger position. People talk about Utah slipping, but the Jazz are 13 games over .500 after 45 games. They aren't going anywhere.

In the last two playoff spots sit Denver (22-19) and the Clippers (22-22). Obviously, neither of these teams have set the world ablaze. But Denver's Carmelo-less phase is done, and Marcus Camby actually looks healthy. I doubt Denver will compete with even Utah for the Northwest crown, let alone Phoenix and Dallas for the West banner. But can you imagine AI+Melo falling off from that team's disappointing but understandable first-half record? I can't.

The Clippers have really turned their season around. Where the Artest-for-Maggette rumors did nothing but further the discontent in the Kings lockerroom, it seems to have sparked LA2 into a whirlwind of victoriousness. Maggette has predictably been great in his role, and it looks like the Clips' braintrust has realized they need to "Play Corey." L.A. has won 7 of 10 and has been terrific at home all season. With Cassell back, Brand still chugging, and Maggs apparently staying, that team should pull away at some point.

Even if they don't, it'll be Minnesota with Hulked-out Garnett, Golden State with full-on Nellieball, New Orleans with CP3+defense, or even Portland - Portland of 21 wins last season! - there as the challenger. I can see no reasonable scenario in which the Kings make the playoffs this season. A rash of major injuries to the conference's biggest stars could help, but even then, we're talking pipe dreams. (Or in Maurice Taylor's case, dreams of pipes.)