As the NBA's top teams battle for playoff positioning over last few days of the regular season, the league's bottom feeders are in a race for ping pong balls.
The two worst teams in the Western Conference suit up Monday night when the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz face each other with only pride and draft lottery status on the line.
The Jazz (24-56), who are out of the playoffs for the third consecutive season, are closing 2013-14 as poorly as they started it. Since March 10, Utah has been outscored by 11.6 points per game while going 2-15. The only equally poor stretch this season for the Jazz came at the beginning of the season when they opened 1-14.
"This year obviously hasn't been the best year for any of us, the amount of losses that we experienced," said rookie point guard Trey Burke. "I think the future is bright. We've showed flashes of what can be. We're competing in every single game. It's not like we're out there for 48 minutes not competing."
Despite the poor record, Burke and a few other young players have given the Jazz a solid foundation to build on. Over the last two games, Utah has started Burke, Alec Burks, Enes Kanter, Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward, all of whom are 24 or younger.
The entire group is slated to return for the Jazz next season, although Hayward will be a restricted free agent at season's end.
In the two games, that lineup has averaged 77.5 points, a major boost over the 61.5 points per game the starting five was putting up over the first 78 games.
"They're getting better as they get used to each other on the floor," coach Tyrone Corbin said of the group following Saturday's 101-94 loss to Denver. "Understanding time and floor situations, understanding when to foul and when not to foul and taking advantage of second shot opportunities rebounding-wise."
The Lakers (25-55) also are set to close the book on one of the worst campaigns in the franchise's celebrated history, having already set a mark for losses in a single season.
Los Angeles dropped its seventh straight Sunday night with a 102-90 home loss to Memphis. A defeat against the Jazz will mark the Lakers' longest losing streak since they dropped eight in a row from March 14-27, 2005.
"It's been real tough, for everybody. Nobody is thrilled with what has happened," coach Mike D'Antoni said. "Me, along with everyone else in the dressing room, we don't feel good about it."
The Lakers will close the season without center Pau Gasol, who was officially ruled out of the final two games because of vertigo. Gasol has played only once since March 25.
The Jazz have won two of three meetings with Los Angeles this season, including a 105-103 victory in Salt Lake City on Dec. 27. The Lakers have now lost three in a row there.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
All Rights Reserved