Popovich would rather avoid L.A.

LOS ANGELES -- Recent road struggles and an injury to starting center Andrew Bynum have left the Los Angeles Lakers searching to regain the swagger of a defending champion.

That hasn't stopped their competition from regarding them with any less respect.

San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, speaking before Sunday's game in Los Angeles, knows his team is the seventh seed in the West thanks to its two-game winning streak and wants no part of falling back into the eighth seed and a playoff matchup with the top-seeded Lakers.

"The ones that say, 'We don't care who we play,' they're full of baloney," Popovich said. "We're all trying to hide from the Lakers in the first round and that's the truth.

"Really, it's like, 'Who do you want to play in the first round?,'" Popovich continued before sarcastically answering his question. "Oh, the Lakers! We'll play the Lakers!"

San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Portland are within a game of each other to determine the sixth, seventh and eighth seeds in the West. Popovich said the playoff race is the toughest it's ever been.

"We're all kind of fighting to try get our position or move up and nobody is giving any ground to anybody else," he said.

Lakers head coach Phil Jackson said his team is starting to keep an eye on who its first-round opponent might be, paying special attention to the Trail Blazers, who are currently the eighth seed.

"We think there are three teams that are basically bouncing around in that six-seven-eight spot," Jackson said. "Portland seems to have a lot of energy right now. Their schedule is favorable. They have fewer games to play. We play them once here next Sunday. We kind of thought that was going to be a preamble to perhaps a playoff matchup at one time too."

With five to seven games left for all the playoff-bound teams in the West, the standings are sure to change almost daily between now and the regular season finale April 14, but that isn't stopping teams from looking ahead at which teams they could face in the postseason.

"We think about it every day," Popovich said. "You can't not [think about it]. Every time you turn around one of these guys pops up on TV, you got to turn the TV off. You pick something up to read, you put it down. The radio [too]. There's so much media that [even] if you wanted to get away from it, somehow you know."

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.