Lakers guard Kobe Bryant checks the scoreboard as the Clippers pull away… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)
If ever there's a time for the Lakers to sweep a back-to-back set, it's now.
Age and injuries could always be blamed, but inconsistency would be the biggest, saddest mark of a team that hasn't won on back-to-back days this season.
"It's a good time to start," Kobe Bryant said Monday.
The Lakers have never gone a whole season without sweeping a back-to-back series in their 64-year history. Even their worst team, the 1957-58 Minneapolis Lakers who finished 19-53, managed to nail a back-to-back.
The maligned present-day Lakers (40-37) play host to New Orleans on Tuesday and then are at Portland, their personal haunted mansion, on Wednesday.
In the mess that this season has become, a surprising bit of positive injury news trickled out of the Lakers' medical flies Monday.
Metta World Peace played three-on-three at the team's practice facility and planned to return to the lineup Tuesday if he didn't feel any pain in his left knee. He underwent surgery to repair torn cartilage March 28, at which time the team said he would be back in at least six weeks.
Tuesday would be 12 days.
"I call him 'Logan' now," Bryant said, referring to a comic book superhero. "He's Wolverine, man, that's who he is."
World Peace will try to restore some bite to the oft-soft Lakers' defense. It won't be easy.
Less likely to return Tuesday was Steve Nash, who missed three games and sat out most of two others because of lingering hip and hamstring soreness. He did not practice Monday.
There's no more time for incremental improvements and rousing rah-rah quotes.
Why even dredge up the Lakers' 4-17 record in Portland since 2002? Either they win there this week or they don't, and if it's the latter, it might mean the end of their playoff chances.
The Lakers trail Utah (41-37) by half a game for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Jazz clinched the tiebreaker with a 2-1 head-to-head record.
Utah surprised some basketball followers by winning Sunday at Golden State and jumping back ahead of the Lakers.
"It turns things up. We've got to get it cracking a little bit," Bryant said. He was quietly confident, even cracking a few smiles while talking with reporters Monday. "We don't know what the hell's going to happen."
Right now, all the Lakers can do is hope. They don't control the future of the eighth spot right now. Utah does.
If the Jazz wins its final four games — home against Oklahoma City and Minnesota, at Minnesota and at Memphis — then the Lakers will miss the playoffs for only the third time since 1976.
The Lakers finish with home games against Golden State, San Antonio and Houston after their back-to-back set.
Pau Gasol has missed 33 games this season because of injuries. Steve Blake sat out 37. Nash would miss his 28th if he sat out Tuesday's game.
But World Peace will miss only six games after knee surgery if he plays against New Orleans.
Doctors "were amazed at how the swelling didn't even exist" after surgery, World Peace said. "It's the swelling that keeps you from playing. I didn't have it and that's why I wanted to play right away."
Bryant said his level of respect for World Peace was "no more than I've already had. It's already been at its highest level."
Jodie Meeks will return to the Lakers' bench if World Peace starts the game.
Times correspondent Eric Pincus contributed to this report.