I'm a Jazz fan, so I'd love for the Jazz to win the title -- but it's a hard road ahead. It'll be a hard road for the LA or Dallas as well. Even the new ESPN toy (some sort of playoff predictor that, in my case, finds a way for the Lakers to be bounced from the playoffs 17 times out of 20 and even once has the Bobcats winning the ring) does little to dispel the notion that the West is insanely tough this year.
No doubt we've all looked at the standings and marveled at how close teams are. One way to look at this is to assume that a majority of these teams are pretty much even strength. Of course, that's what David Stern and his TV deal devils want. An alternative view is that some teams have over-achieved while better teams have dropped a few games they should not have lost. Depending on which fanbase you hail from (or if you are an optimist), you could be in either of those two camps. One thing is certain though, while the East is led by two juggernauts and followed by an aging titan the winner of the Wild Wild West will have had to go through hell and back for 12 wins -- for the right to play in the finals.
The Jazz have a handful of games left, and even the easier games can't be taken for granted. New Orleans is playing well right now and would want to show their fans a preview for next season by trying to play spoiler. Golden State has enough guns to take out a really good team if the ball bounces their way -- we've seen it before when they took out the Mavs in 2006-2007. Houston, Oklahoma City and Phoenix will all be tough games. And, of course, the Jazz will fight the smog and traffic and superstar calls in LA on Friday.
Even making it to the playoffs in one piece will be hard enough for each of the teams in it, even though they have mostly all already clinched spots. (Gone are the days of resting starters in April) A slip-up here will bring you from 2nd place to 5th or 6th in no time. Just ask the Nuggets.
The idea is to try to win as many games as possible, but I really think that the Jazz need to maneuver into the best playoff brackets possible, instead of trying to be the best. I'm actively advocating dropping one of these 6 games if it means playing the Blazers in the playoffs instead of playing the Spurs or Oklahoma City. It's hard to predict what to do in these types of situations. Of course, the 'easiest' route on paper is to win the division and the 2nd seed.
Avoiding the Lakers is very important, we all know this; however, getting bounced in the first round (which can happen to any of the 4 home teams in the West playoffs -- even the Lakers if they continue to not know how to play defense) is a possibility we should be wary of. (After all, the Stockton and Malone Jazz have something like 6 or 7 1st round exits) What's more important than avoiding the Lakers is actually winning playoff games.
Utah has shown that they can beat some of these teams, and shown that they can't beat others. The Thunder are just as dangerous as the Lakers are because we haven't beat the Thunder. Forget about the fact that Durant is getting some slight MVP votes, and getting to the line 15 times in Boston against a team of guys who won the ring 2 years ago. Right now we can't handle the Thunder (yes, one of the games was close), they could out us just as easily as the Lakers right now. Maybe things will be different in the playoffs -- but I don't think they will be. Remember when the Jazz played the Spurs back in the playoffs and the Jazz beat the Spurs 5-0 that season? Some NBC guys were talking about how the playoffs were a different animal - they were not. The Jazz trounced them in the playoffs. It was like taking candy from a baby with the help of Navy Seals and a weaponized form of anthrax. (Average margin of victory was +8.25 points ... AGAINST A PLAYOFF TEAM IN THE PLAYOFFS, and the Jazz were the lower seed)
I don't like the hubris that comes from everyone saying good things about us; it will only inflate our sense of self and make any losses that much worse for us, as fans. Our team will have to come to play against any team faced in the West playoffs, starting with Round 1. Honestly, looking at the teams right now I think the Jazz can beat (with a high success rate) either the Portland Trailblazers or the San Antonio Spurs in the first round. But both of those teams are playing really good basketball right now, and a) there's no way either of those teams would go down easy, and b) there's no way to predict that those teams will be the 8th or 7th seed when the playoffs start.
NBA fans should enjoy these playoffs as each of these 8 teams will be fighting (on mostly) equal footing. Whomever is lucky enough to win the West will have the added pressure of representing such a strong conference -- but also have the disadvantage of having to get to the finals through, essentially, Mordor. (No Toronto Raptors or Miami Heat in the West Playoffs) Whomever wins the west will have won three Pyrrhic victories to get there.
In reality being a Western Conference Playoff team is the victory, itself. Everything else is just madness. (not of the March variety)