by David Elfin

The usually fabulous Lakers are having their worst year since they left Minneapolis for Los Angeles 54 years ago, but they did the Wizards a favor last night. L.A.’s romp over New York reduced Washington’s magic number to five to clinch its first playoff spot in six years.

That’s with 12 games remaining, beginning tonight against Phoenix at Verizon Center. So the Wizards (36-34) can go 5-7 the rest of the way and still qualify fir postseason for the first time since Barack Obama, the first hoops junkie to be President, moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The Knicks’ defeat relives some pressure on Washington, which surrendered at least 100 points in five of its past six games. That defensive slide goes a long way to explaining how the Wizards went 3-3 during that span, including a disappointing 1-3 mark on its four-game swing out West with losses to also-rans Denver and Sacramento.

“We feel like we could’ve came back 3-1 or even 4-0 but we let the first game slip away [to the Kings in ovetime] and I think that kind of stuck with us,” said All-Star point guard John Wall, who missed two critical free throws late in regulation at Sacramento and then committed eight of Washington’s season-high 24 turnovers against the Nuggets.

“It’s crunch time right now and we’ve got to find a way to win,” said Trevor Booker, who has been starting up front ever since Nene sprained his left MCL on Feb. 23 at Cleveland. “[Losing to two] teams that are not going to be in the playoffs, it’s something we got to deal with. We got to go back to the drawing board.”

After facing the formidable Suns (42-29), the Wizards tangle on Friday with Eastern Conference-leading Indiana, which clobbered them by 20 and 27 points during their previous meetings. Washington then plays Atlanta, Charlotte and Boston, all of which it leads in the Eastern standings.

Meanwhile, New York (29-42), which is the top team on the outside looking in at the Eastern playoff picture, began a five-game trip out West with that loss to the Lakers. The Knicks get to face Sacramento and Utah, which have worse records than they do, but they also have to take on the Suns and Golden State (44-27).

So if form holds in the teams’ games between now and then, the Wizards could wrap up their long-coveted playoff berth before they visit Madison Square Garden a week from Friday. Washington can also clinch its first winning season in six years by splitting its final 12 games.

However, owning homecourt advantage in the opening round, a distinct possibility before the Wizards fizzled out West, now seems highly unlikely. Chicago surprised Indiana on Monday to move three and a half games ahead of Washington and two games ahead of Brooklyn in the battle for fourth place in the East.

The Wizards are actually closer to seventh place, which, as of now, would mean a first-round matchup with two-time defending champion Miami and MVP LeBron James, who ended Washington’s last three playoff appearances as Cleveland’s superstar. Dwyane Wade and the Heat beat the Wizards in 2005 in Washington’s only other postseason since 1997.

But if the standings hold, Washington will meet Toronto in the first round. That’s not great news either given the Raptors’ 3-0 record against the Wizards this season prior to the latter’s 134-129 triple-overtime victory on Feb. 27.

However, Toronto, a 1995-96 expansion franchise, has been just as abysmal as Washington during the last 19 seasons, making the playoffs just five times and not at all since 2008 and winning just one series. That came back in 2001, four years before the Wizards beat the Bulls for their only postseason series triumph since 1982.

Toronto, 39-31 after losing to Cleveland last night, is closer to Washington in the standings than it is to powerhouses Indiana and Miami. As is the case with the Wizards, none of the Raptors nor their coach have made the playoffs with the franchise. And the team from north of the border doesn’t have anyone who has reached the NBA finals, let alone having won a championship like Washington forward Trevor Ariza.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. With a 7-1/2 game lead and just those dozen games to play, the Wizards would have to totally fall apart and the Knicks would have to soar for Washington not to end its six-year playoff drought which was the goal that owner Ted Leonsis and general manager Ernie Grunfeld set before the season began. Mission accomplished. Almost.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.


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