From left, the Clippers' Matt Barnes, Coach Vinny Del Negro, Lamar… (Mark J. Terrill / Associated…)
The Lakers (40-36) travel to the visitors bench at Staples Center on Sunday in their second-to-last away game of the season, against the Clippers (50-26).
The Clippers have already logged their best regular season in franchise history. They look to sweep the Lakers after winning the two teams' three previous games.
After an 86-84 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday, the Lakers remain half a game ahead of the Utah Jazz (40-37) for eighth place -- and the final playoff spot -- in the Western Conference. A single loss over the final six games could drop the Lakers out of the playoffs, provided the Jazz do not lose again this season. Utah visits the sixth-place Golden State Warriors on Sunday.
The Clippers dominated earlier in the season, winning 17 consecutive games. They've struggled to recapture that magic but have dealt with a number of injuries and setbacks along the way.
Steve Nash (hamstring) and Metta World Peace (knee) are out for the Lakers. Chauncey Billups (groin) and Grant Hill are also sidelined.
The Lakers need the victory to help make sure they stay in the top eight. The Clippers are trying to finish with the third seeding, ahead of the third-place Denver Nuggets (53-24) and fourth-place Grizzlies (51-25).
Chris Paul has dominated the Lakers this season, averaging 24 points and 13.7 assists a game. Down the stretch of the closer battles, he's provided a bigger lift than Kobe Bryant.
Bryant tallied 40 and 38 points in his first two meetings against the Clippers. In the last, a blowout loss, he scored 20 with 11 assists. In the first game, the Lakers were without Nash. The second time they had everyone but Steve Blake, losing by five as the Clippers played without high-scoring sub Jamal Crawford. In February, the Lakers played without Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill.
Even with Nash, Bryant assumes many of the Lakers' point-guard duties. With their veteran guard sidelined, Bryant is the team's primary offensive initiator alongside Blake, who starts in place of Nash.
Paul has had the Lakers' number this season and will be the biggest concern on Sunday, especially in a close game.
The Clippers have many players who are threats offensively outside of Paul, including Blake Griffin, Caron Butler, Matt Barnes, DeAndre Jordan, Eric Bledsoe and Crawford.
Crawford is a threat with his ability to create off the dribble. Bledsoe has a knack for disrupting ball handlers with pressure and steals.
At their best, the Clippers should be able to beat the Lakers on Sunday, but they haven't been at their best for some time.
The Lakers need their two big guys -- Gasol and Dwight Howard -- to punish the Clippers inside. Though Griffin is a powerful scorer, he isn't as proficient defensively. Jordan's defense is also inconsistent.
The Clippers aren't at their best of late, but they're still very dangerous. There's a reason they've outpaced the Lakers by 10 wins so far this season.
On Sunday, however, the Lakers might play with enough desperation to avoid the sweep.
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Email Eric Pincus at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.