Lakers center Dwight Howard, middle, and Houston Rockets center Omer Asik,… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
It all comes down to one game. The Lakers (44-37) host the Houston Rockets (45-36) on the final day of the regular season -- in a game that will determine whether the Lakers make the playoffs.
Technically, the Utah Jazz (43-38) might lose earlier in the night while visiting the Memphis Grizzlies (55-26), giving the Lakers a postseason berth by default. If the Lakers win, they finish in seventh place. If they lose and the Jazz lose, the Lakers end in eighth.
If the Lakers lose and the Jazz win? The season is finished for the Lakers.
A victory over the Rockets would set up a first-round battle against a depleted San Antonio Spurs (58-23) squad. The Lakers may not be the favorite, but the challenge seems slightly less daunting than a first-round matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder (60-21) via eighth place.
A Rockets win would push them up to sixth place if the Golden State Warriors (46-35) lose their visit to the Portland Trail Blazers (33-48). At worst, they would stay at seven and take on the Spurs, while a loss to the Lakers matches up Houston with the Thunder.
The Lakers will have to get the job done without Kobe Bryant (Achilles), Steve Nash (hip/hamstring) and Jordan Hill (hip).
The Lakers need Dwight Howard to lead the team in the absence of Bryant. Howard scored 26 points with 17 rebounds against the Spurs on Sunday in a crucial Lakers' victory.
Howard played in two of three games against Houston, averaging 22 points and 12.5 rebounds while shooting 55.6% from the field.
The Rockets counter with seven-footer Omer Asik who is averaging 10.2 points and 11.7 rebounds a game in his first season with Houston.
In three games against the Lakers, Asik averaged 6.7 points and 7.7 rebounds. A strong defender, Asik can challenge Howard -- as long as he stays out of foul trouble.
The Rockets have the obvious names to concern the Lakers -- specifically James Harden and Jeremy Lin -- but forward Chandler Parsons is averaging 19 points on 53.8% shooting against the Lakers this year.
Parson's outside shot has been a problem for the Lakers. In three games, Parsons hit 7-14 from three-point territory.
Another worry is Carlos Delfino who hit 8-17 from three in just two appearances, averaging 17 points a game.
Houston is a high-scoring team. The Lakers will need to play a very tight defensive game. Offensively, players like Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks, Antawn Jamison, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Darius Morris and Chris Duhon need to convert outside shots to spread the floor.
If the Lakers aren't hitting -- the Rockets are going to have a much easier time crowding Pau Gasol and Howard.
The Lakers need this win to keep playing. The Rockets would like to win for playoff seeding, but they've already clinched a spot.
There's a difference between need and want -- the Lakers should be able to extend the season for at least four to seven more games.