7:30 p.m. PDT
1 game cushion with 3 left to play.
The Los Angeles Lakers face a tough slate, with contest against the playoff-bound San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets and tonight against the Golden State Warriors. Meanwhile, the 9th place Utah Jazz have a home and home series against the Minnesota Timberwolves, and a season-closing bout with the Grizzlies in Memphis. Kobe Bryant has buoyed the Lakers by putting on some of his finest scoring games of his entire career, while Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard seem like they've learned how to play with one another at the offensive end. Steve Nash, Metta World Peace and even the long-forgotten Jordan Hill try and battle back from injuries to make an impact on the tail end of the season.
Even when fighting to establish mediocrity, no task is ever a rote exercise in Lakerland.
Like every other facet of this misbegotten season, the last three games should feel like 40 days and 40 nights in the desert. The Lakers must topple three opponents still jockeying for important playoff positioning, starting with the Warriors. Golden State has already clinched just their second postseason appearance in an unbelievable 19 seasons, a basketball predicament that makes Warriors fans curse at the average Lakers fans' 8th seed bellyaching. The Dubs are sitting squarely in 6th place, just a half game up on the Houston Rockets. The importance? The sixth seed plays either the Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers or Denver Nuggets. The seventh seed plays either the reigning Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder or the 4-time NBA titlist San Antonio Spurs. That's a Manute Bol-like difference right there.
Warriors coach Mark Jackson came out weeks ago and said that no matter when the team clinched a spot, he wouldn't be resting his players in order to maintain momentum going into the postseason, not to mention staying out of the 7th place spot. So no mama, you will not be seeing any man going anywhere besides the STAPLES Center floor. The Warriors will be coming off a Thursday night 19 point loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, so there is still the possibility that vets like Richard Jefferson or David Lee get a bit of a rest.
For the Lakers, this is another obvious must-win in what seems like a month's worth of must-wins. LA is just one game up on the Jazz, who play a decidedly easier schedule the rest of the way. Steve Nash is out tonight, trying to give his 39 year-old body a go after sitting out 5 straight games and playing only 2 minutes in the 6th. Meanwhile, the Lakers will have to find a way to halt an unstoppable Warriors guard-based blitzkrieg, whose long-range bombers destroyed the Show for a combined 66 points from Jarret Jack, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson two and a half weeks ago. The Dubs shot 43% from the three-point line that night, reminiscent of the scalding 46% they gave up two nights ago against the Portland Trailblazers. The Lakers must find a way to corral Golden State's back court and not continuously get lost on cross court switches like they did all night on Wednesday. It's not completely out of the question for Kobe to have to go for a complete game virtuoso performance again, but if that's needed, the Lakers will be riding a very shaky line in trying to play past next week.
With games against a DNP happy Gregg Popovich and the Spurs and Houston on the last day of the season, this could very well be the last time the Lakers play a full-strength squad. They'll need to strap in much stronger defensively against a deadly Warriors offense than they did against four rookie starters in P-Town on Wednesday.
No letting up now. Three wins and they're in.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino