San Antonio's Tony Parker, shown driving past Atlanta's Jeff… (Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images )
The Lakers (43-37) host the San Antonio Spurs (58-21) on Sunday at Staples Center. Jodie Meeks will get the start for the injured Kobe Bryant. Steve Blake will go for the almost-ready-but-not-quite Steve Nash.
With the Utah Jazz (42-38) one game behind in the standings, a single Lakers' loss could drop the team out of the playoffs unless Utah loses one of its final two.
The Lakers will need to carry on without Bryant, who underwent surgery on Saturday to repair a torn Achilles' tendon. Nash is still bothered by hip and hamstring soreness.
San Antonio is pushing for the top seeding in the Western Conference, tied in the loss column with the first-place Oklahoma City Thunder (59-21). The Thunder hold the tiebreaker and control their own destiny.
Pau Gasol has had some success defensively against Tim Duncan through the years, but the Spurs' eventual Hall-of-Fame power forward is still a lot to handle.
Duncan is averaging 17.7 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.7 blocks a game this season. He'll turn 37 before the end of the month but Duncan is still one of the league's best players.
Gasol has had a resurgence since returning from a foot injury. In the Lakers' 118-116 victory Friday over the Golden State Warriors, Gasol had a triple-double with 26 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.
The Lakers will need Gasol to be a primary facilitator offensively with Bryant and Nash out.
Tony Parker has returned from a variety of injuries (neck, shin, etc.). Keeping Parker out of the paint has been a problem for most NBA teams for many, many years.
While he's still working his way back, Parker's initial return on Friday saw him score 22 points with 10 assists against the defenseless Sacramento Kings.
The Lakers will need to get something from their backcourt without Bryant. It becomes vital that Blake and Meeks shoot well from the outside, otherwise the Spurs can just pack the paint against Dwight Howard and Gasol.
Blake will have the job of defending Parker. The Lakers might look to Chris Duhon or Darius Morris for help off the bench.
The Lakers need to keep winning, but can they do it without Bryant? Tough call.
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Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.