Other likely spoilers are teams that hone a playoff edge in a tough race to get into postseason play. Last spring Kansas City and Houston didn't earn mini-series berths until the regular season's final days; they went on to eliminate Portland and L.A., which had qualified easily and early. "Last year we had nothing to shoot for in the final 10 days of the season," says Riley. "We locked up second in our division, lost our last two regular-season games and weren't sharp in the playoffs."
The Lakers have wised up this season, figuring it's best to win the division and leave the mini-series to those teams with pint-sized ambitions. As the Kings' Ford says, "You can't be eliminated while you're waiting."