Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki, here being fouled by Lakers forward… (Tony Gutierrez / Associated…)
The Lakers (38-36) split Week 22, falling to the Golden State Warriors and Milwaukee Bucks. The two wins over the Minnesota Timberwolves and Sacramento Kings kept the Lakers tied with the eighth-place Jazz -- but Utah owns the head-to-head tiebreaker.
With three games this week at Staples Center, the Lakers will be challenged by the Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies and, in a local road game, the Clippers. Anything less than two or three wins might ultimately eliminate the Lakers from the playoffs.
All told, the team is five losses below the cumulative predictions for weeks 1-22.
Tuesday vs. Dallas Mavericks
The most important game of the season for the Lakers, over the last eight, is every game.
This one, hosting the 36-37, is slightly more important than the rest. The Lakers have to catch the Jazz but even if they do, the Mavericks are still a player in this race.
A Lakers' victory would clinch the season series at 3-1. A loss evens it at 2-2, which makes conference record the tiebreaker. The Lakers would still be ahead by a half game -- along with a half-game advantage in the tiebreaker -- but Dallas would have a real shot to push the Lakers down to 10th in the West.
The Mavericks started slowly this season with a knee injury to Dirk Nowitzki. They've won a number of key games to climb back into the race.
With Steve Nash hobbled with a hamstring strain (questionable), the Lakers will need to play at a high level to beat Dallas.
Friday vs. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies (49-24) are a serious defensive squad. They hold teams to 90 points a game -- among the best in the league.
Marc Gasol was out indefinitely with an abdominal injury but he's already back in action. The Grizzlies dealt Rudy Gay before the trade deadline -- improving defensively and even offensively.
The Lakers lost their first visit to Memphis, 106-98 (without Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Jordan Hill). They lost a second time on the road, 106-93 (without Blake and Hill). Both games were before the Gay trade.
Memphis is still trying to climb in the West, with designs on the third seed. The Grizzlies aren't a high-scoring team, but they're tough, physical and a threat to the Lakers on Friday.
Sunday at Clippers
The Lakers have lost three straight to the Clippers (49-25). The final meeting will be a "road" game for the Lakers.
Injuries have slowed down the Clippers, who have been closer to a .500 team since their impressive 17-game winning streak that ended Jan. 1.
Chris Paul seemed to best the Lakers in the previous meetings. He's certainly the most difficult player for the Lakers to contain.
The importance of the three games this week for the Lakers cannot be overstated. The Clippers are also in danger of losing home court advantage in the first round, despite their impending win of the Pacific Division.