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Lakers’ escape from play-in could be derailed by overlooked wrinkle

The Los Angeles Lakers caught a huge break on Thursday night as the Portland Trail Blazers choked away a late lead against the Phoenix Suns.

Damian Lillard put the Blazers up by three with about 30 seconds left to play:

But alas, they were done in by Robert Covington’s inability to make his free throws and the game was lost at the line after a controversial call went in Devin Booker’s favor. With that defeat, the Lakers’ hopes of leapfrogging the Blazers and escaping the dreaded play-in tournament remain alive. But even if things go right for LeBron James’ side heading into the final day of the season, there’s one tiny wrinkle that might doom the Lakers regardless.

Lakers’ Play-In Spoiler: The Denver Nuggets

As it stands, the Lakers still have two clearouts to secure their spot in the playoffs. They could either jump past the Dallas Mavericks or the aforementioned Blazers. But the likelihood of the Mavs getting bumped is pretty slim.

The Dallas Mavericks have two games remaining on their slate and they need to lose both to get overtaken by the Lakers. They take on the Toronto Raptors at home on Friday night, and then they head to Minnesota to take on the Timberwolves. On paper, it seems like they’d be two easy games to handle, but you never know in the NBA.

The Toronto Raptors have been sitting a lot of their players lately. But now that they’re firmly entrenched with the seventh-best NBA Draft Lottery odds, they have no reason to tank the game with their standing locked in. Look for Nick Nurse and some pesky second-stringers to come out and try to play the role of spoiler.

The same goes for the Minnesota Timberwolves. For some reason, they’ve sabotaged their own draft odds as of late, winning six of their last 10 contests. Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards will be looking to end the season on a positive note, as those two are definitely not thinking about some draft pick who hasn’t even joined the team yet.

But the likelihood of them losing both is rough, especially with Kristaps Porzingis expected back and healthy.

The wrench in the Lakers’ plans:

There’s still a possibility that the Nuggets end up as the third seed in the West. They currently hold the tiebreaker against the Los Angeles Clippers and are just one game behind them for the spot.

If the Clippers manage to lose one of their final two games and the Nuggets win theirs against the Detroit Pistons, they’ll be poised to take the third seed. Damian Lillard and the Blazers have just one game remaining, which happens to be against Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets.

This one game would then determine who the Denver Nuggets would face in the first round. In this scenario, the Nuggets would be able to control their own destiny. They’d be able to dodge the Lakers, the team that knocked them out last year if they lose that game intentionally. Don’t be surprised if some in-game chicanery could happen during that final contest.

Happy scoreboard watching, folks. This is certainly going to be a wild weekend of basketball.