When they lost to the Atlanta Hawks, 96-92, the Lakers lost ground to Stephen… (George Nikitin / Associated…)
The Lakers (36-34), coming off two straight losses, head to Golden State on Monday night to play the Warriors (40-31).
Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant returned from injury Friday, but the Lakers lost an 18-point lead to the Washington Wizards. Gasol was winded throughout his first game played in six weeks. Bryant had a poor showing defensively.
The sixth-place Warriors are still within reach if the Lakers start winning consistently again, but it's going to take a victory in Oakland for L.A. to have any kind of chance to move up.
Stephen Curry is working through a sprained ankle. His status against the Lakers is unclear.
The Warriors are a guard-centric team but with scorers like Klay Thompson, Jarrett Jack and Curry. Forward Harrison Barnes isn't necessarily an inside presence. The Warriors are athletic and deep, but it's what they have inside that matters Monday.
The Lakers haven't seen Andrew Bogut all season, and while the center is averaging just 6.3 points a game this year in only 23 appearances, it will be the first time the Warriors can put a true center against Dwight Howard.
Bogut should free up David Lee to cause havoc. Lee is averaging 18.5 points and 11.2 rebounds a game this season.
The Lakers will need a strong game from Howard, and that's not necessarily just on the team's center. The guards need to feed him the ball — something they often overlook (and certainly did against the Wizards).
Gasol needs to be reintegrated into the offense. He won't do the team much good standing on the perimeter, outside of the three-point line.
When the Lakers won earlier in the year at Golden State, they put Howard and Gasol at the elbows (the corners on each side of the free-throw line).
Steve Nash would feed the ball to Gasol and then cut through the middle, setting a screen on either corner for Kobe Bryant or Metta World Peace. The Warriors had a lot of trouble defending it but the Lakers haven't really run it much since then — even when Gasol was healthy.
The key over the final 12 games will be the Lakers working Gasol back in, and Oakland would be a great place to go back to what worked in the past.
Both Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry are difficult covers for the Lakers — regardless of what team they're on. Paired together on the Warriors, they'll keep their team in the game regardless of deficit.
The Lakers' recent losses should lead to a much stronger focus against the Warriors. A win in Golden State is more important than a loss to the Wizards.
If the Lakers are the team they want to be, mark it down as a win.
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Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.