Lakers power forward Pau Gasol is fouled by San Antonio power forward Antonio… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
The Lakers are about to embark on perhaps the most important week of their regular season.
They will play four playoff-bound teams over the next seven days on the road, teams that are talented and competitive.
Three of the teams are among the NBA elite, teams that many believe have a legitimate chance at winning the championship. Two of the teams are ahead of them in the Western Conference and in the race for best record in the NBA, and another is just a half-game behind them for the fifth-best record in the league.
It will be a tall order for the Lakers to play at San Antonio on Sunday, Atlanta on Tuesday, Miami on Thursday and Dallas on Saturday.
It could be even more harrowing for the Lakers if Derek Fisher (strained left elbow) and Matt Barnes (tender right knee) are unable to play.
Fisher, who was injured in the third quarter of the Lakers' victory over Charlotte on Friday night, practiced Saturday after getting treatment and was listed as probable by the Lakers for Sunday's game.
Fisher's streak of playing in 476 consecutive regular-season games is the longest among active players.
Barnes, who has missed 26 games after January knee surgery, was expected to play Friday night but irritated the knee during warmups. He also practiced Saturday after getting treatment, but is listed as day to day.
With or without them, the Lakers view the trip as a challenge.
"It's very important for us to go out here on this road trip and win these games," center Andrew Bynum said. "Fortunately, we don't have any back-to-back games. We have a day to prepare for each and every one of them. So we really want to win these games, not just for the standings, but to send a message and let everybody know that we're here and we're serious."
The Lakers have been sending a lot of messages lately, their six-game winning streak showcasing an increased commitment to defense and improved focus as they try to win a third consecutive championship.
Still, the Lakers (44-19) haven't been able to make up much ground on the Spurs, whose 51-11 record is the NBA's best. San Antonio is 7-3 in its last 10 games, same as the Lakers.
The Spurs are 2-0 against the Lakers this season, the most recent meeting an 89-88 San Antonio victory Feb. 3 on a last-second tip-in by Antonio McDyess at Staples Center.
"It's really not about them taking the first two. It doesn't really mean much to me," Kobe Bryant said. "I think it's a great measuring stick, because we have been playing very well, particularly defensively. They are an offensive machine, so it's going to be interesting to see how well we perform on Sunday defensively and how we match up with them and how we execute."
The Lakers defeated the Hawks (37-25) on Feb. 22 at Staples Center, but they have lost three straight in Atlanta.
Then it's on to Miami to face a struggling Heat team that has lost four of its last five games.
But the Heat routed the Lakers on Christmas Day at Staples, and it still has Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh.
Miami (43-19) is a half-game behind the Lakers for the fifth-best record in the NBA and three games behind the Boston Celtics for the best record in the Eastern Conference.
The trip ends Saturday at Dallas, against a team the Lakers are trying to overtake for second place in the West.
The Mavericks (45-16) have won eight consecutive games. They won the teams' only meeting, 109-100 on Jan. 19 in Dallas, and lead the Lakers by two games.
"It's a test, a test to see how much better we've gotten over the last two weeks," Lamar Odom said. "It'll be fun."