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HELENE ELLIOTT

In playoff chase Lakers might be able to catch Rockets or Jazz

The teams within reach of the Lakers aren't all that strong, and the Lakers have some relatively weak opponents coming up.

February 28, 2013|Helene Elliott

Metta World Peace took a break to meditate before he conducted a baffling conversation with reporters in which he said he knew nothing about getting a retroactive flagrant foul from the NBA for a play in Denver on Monday and that he had forgotten he even played basketball. All that meditation — or is that Metta-tation? — apparently freed him to reach a new state of clarity Thursday on the key issue: what the Lakers must do in order to make the playoffs.

"We have to call up other teams and ask them, 'Can you please lose so we can go to the playoffs? Pretty please?'" he said.

Nice idea, but not likely to get very far. Even with that oh-so-polite "pretty please" thrown in.

"And then we have to win. We have to win," World Peace said. "That's something I do know."

They won a game Thursday that they had to win, extending their domination of the Minnesota Timberwolves to 21 straight with a sometimes tedious 116-94 victory at Staples Center. They moved within a game of .500, at 29-30, and must now approach every game as a must-win situation while they're sitting two games behind Houston for the eighth playoff spot in the West and 2 1/2 games behind seventh-place Utah.

"This is not, 'Wow, a great performance,'" Coach Mike D'Antoni said afterward. "We did our job. We're getting better."

D'Antoni acknowledged that he, like most coaches, likes to draw up plans that include a targeted number of wins for a defined block of games. Those plans have gone out the window.

"Coaches like to do that. We break it down," he said. "But we've got to win them all. I hate to do that, but obviously our focus should be very narrow at the present."

It's difficult not to think back on the bad early-season losses that helped put them in this precarious position. Most memorable are their home losses to Orlando, now 16-42 and Philadelphia (22-34), as well as road losses at Sacramento (20-39), Cleveland (20-38), Toronto (23-35) and Phoenix (20-39).

They will face Minnesota, Toronto, Orlando, Sacramento (twice) and Phoenix again and can't let those games slip away. The same for New Orleans (20-39) and Washington (18-38).

They got a fortunate break on Wednesday, when the three teams directly ahead of them — Houston, Utah and Golden State — all lost, but they can't always count on that much help.

"It's a little bit early to say lucky. That's just the way it went," D'Antoni said. "Then you watch it and make sure we take care of our business."

The Lakers played in spurts Thursday.

Dwight Howard took only four shots through three quarters but finished with 11 points and a game-high 13 rebounds. Kobe Bryant had 33 points, 22 of them in the first half. Starter Earl Clark had only four points but the bench had a strong collective performance, as Antawn Jamison scored 17 points, Jodie Meeks scored 16 points and Steve Blake scored 13, with Blake also pulling down seven rebounds and contributing six assists.

It's tough to judge their performance given the Timberwolves' extensive injuries and depleted lineup, but D'Antoni was happy to take this one and move on.

"I think our defense is getting a little bit better. We're understanding what we're trying to do," he said.

"We had some parts good ball movement, some parts not real good. We've got to even that out. That's key going forward, keeping everyone involved."

But while moving within two games of Houston and that final West playoff spot, the Lakers do have something else on their side:

They're not chasing an elite team like the San Antonio Spurs.

The Houston Rockets, who are 12-19 on the road, aren't that good a team and they can be overtaken. So can the Utah Jazz, which has lost three straight and is 10-19 on the road.

The Rockets have squandered 17-point leads in each of their last two games, on Saturday in the third quarter against Washington — which was 16-37 before that game — and again on Wednesday at home against the struggling Milwaukee Bucks.

The Rockets built that 17-point lead over the Bucks in the first quarter but in the end couldn't close out a so-so team and lost on Monta Ellis' wild, off-balance three-pointer.

"That was a pretty nice shot," D'Antoni said, smiling. "But we've just got to take care of our business."

They used to be in the business of winning regularly. Things are tougher now, when a "pretty please" won't get you anywhere.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

twitter.com/helenenothelen

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