Lakers center Dwight Howard loses control of the ball as he attempts a shot… (Tony Gutierrez / Associated…)
The Lakers (38-36) will host the Dallas Mavericks (36-37) on Tuesday night, in a game that may have serious playoff implications.
The Mavericks are 1 1/2 games behind the Lakers in the Western Conference. A Dallas win would make conference record the tiebreaker, which is currently too close to call.
A Lakers' victory would put the Lakers up by 2 1/2 in the head-to-head tiebreaker (3-1). It would also keep the Lakers tied in the standings with the Utah Jazz.
The Jazz won the season series over the Lakers. A win will only help the Lakers keep pace, dependent on Utah losing at least one over its final seven games.
Losing to Dallas could sentence the Lakers to a spot as low as 10th place, with no playoff run.
Putting the playoff chase aside for a moment, former Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal's jersey number will be retired during halftime of Tuesday's contest.
The Mavericks took out the Lakers on opening night, 99-91. The Lakers got revenge in November (115-89) and February (103-99), winning both games in Dallas. The Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki only played in the third game, scoring 30 points on 11-19 shooting.
The Lakers won the battle without Pau Gasol, with Metta World Peace and Earl Clark getting the bulk of the defensive assignment on Nowitzki.
Dallas is a threat to even the series if Nowitzki is hot. Gasol will draw the primary assignment, followed by Clark -- and possibly Antawn Jamison. World Peace is out with a knee injury.
Gasol is still trying to get back into shape after sitting out for six weeks with a foot injury. He's still feeling pain after tearing his plantar fascia but is learning to play through it.
Gasol versus Nowitzki on Tuesday could ultimately decide the Lakers' fate.
The status of Steve Nash is up in the air. The veteran point guard is hobbled with a hamstring strain and may not play.
Steve Blake will need to take on a major role in his absence. Blake has shot well this season, but his percentages dip as a starter.
Matching up against Mike James may not be a problem, but Darren Collison has been a difficult cover for the Lakers.
On Monday after practice, Dwight Howard called Brandan Wright the Mavericks' X-factor. Wright has started recently at center, giving Dallas effort, energy and 61.3% shooting from the field. The 6-foot-10 Wright will draw Howard defensively.
The Lakers will be tested Tuesday in what may the key game of the season. Of course, they are in a position in which every remaining game is a must-win.
Dallas can be beaten, but if the game is on the line in the closing seconds, Nowitzki is still one of the best closers in the NBA.
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Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.