Lakers guard Kobe Bryant makes a pass after driving down the lane against… (Mark J. Terrill / Associated…)
The Lakers muscled through two must-win games in a row against a pair of sub-.500 teams (New Orleans and Toronto) but at this stretch of the season, style points are meaningless.
What's important is the Lakers (32-31) gained a full game Friday on both the Utah Jazz (32-30) and Golden State Warriors (35-28). The Houston Rockets (34-29) won in Oakland to stay two games ahead of the Lakers.
The eighth-place Jazz are vulnerable, but only if the Lakers keep winning. Utah owns the tie-breaker, meaning their half-game lead over the Lakers is functionally 1 1/2. Utah still has to play games in New York, Oklahoma City, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Portland, Golden State, Minnesota and Memphis.
The Jazz have already lost eight at home this season and will face a number of playoff-bound teams in Salt Lake City, including the Memphis Grizzlies, Brooklyn Nets, Denver Nuggets, Knicks and Thunder.
The Lakers will still visit Orlando, Atlanta, Indiana, Phoenix, Golden State, Minnesota, Sacramento, Portland and the Clippers. At home, the Lakers also host some playoff teams, including the Chicago Bulls, San Antonio Spurs, Grizzlies, Warriors and Rockets.
Sixth place is not out of the question but the requirement for the postseason is eighth. The Lakers also pulled above .500 for the first time since they were 6-5 back on Nov. 20.
The Jazz, Rockets and Warriors all play on the second night of back-to-back games Saturday. Utah visits the Knicks, Houston travels to Phoenix and Golden State will host the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Lakers have a Sunday matinee at home against the Bulls.
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