For the Los Angeles Lakers, not all games are created equal.
Caddy though it may be to consider one or more games more important than others, the truth is, it has to happen.
When chasing what could prove to be an elusive playoff berth, there's no use pretending that games against the Orlando Magic are just as important to win as an April bout against fellow bubble teams like the Houston Rockets or Portland Trail Blazers.
Presently, the Lakers are 22-26 and sit 3.5 games outside the Western Conference playoff picture. With the first six seeds essentially etched in stone, Los Angeles is one of five teams who are vying for one of the two remaining slots.
Do the Lakers have what it takes to climb back above .500, beat out at least three other hungry convocations and ultimately clinch their eighth consecutive playoff berth?
The journey toward the postseason is an arduous one, but it becomes well within reach if Hollywood's finest can emerge victorious from a handful of games that simply cannot be lost.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.
First, an acknowledgement.
ESPN's Numbers Never Lie postulates that the Lakers must win 48 games to snag a playoff spot. At 22-26, that means they need to finish the season 26-8 to satisfy such requirements.
Though such a number is open for interpretation, we can safely assume 46 games is the bare minimum of what it will take to get the job done.
Yet of the 24-26, or more, victories Los Angeles needs to tally down the stretch, some are more important than others.
With the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets all virtual playoff locks, seeds seven and eight are all the Lakers can realistically strive for.
These tidbits of information are important, not just because they depict which teams are immersed in postseason hopes, but because they shape Los Angeles' urgency meter for the rest of season.
While the playoffs are more than out of reach for the Phoenix Suns, this is one of the most important matchups of the season for the Lakers.
Los Angeles faces Phoenix after five straight games against east coast teams, and it will desperately need a win as it re-acclimates itself to the Western Conference.
The Suns and Lakers split their first two meetings of the season and this will determine the series winner.
A victory here is not only expected, but it allows Los Angeles to begin its four-game homestand on a high note.
One that may be sorely needed after facing the likes of the Miami Heat just one game prior.
Chris Paul may or may not be back by Valentine's Day, but it doesn't really matter—the Lakers need to win this one no matter.
Currently sitting 11.5 games back of the Pacific Division-leading Clippers, it's unlikely the Lakers even come close to catching them.
That said, playoff runs are built on victories against teams like Lob City. Given that Purple and Gold's postseason push has already essentially begun, defeating their inner-building rivals borders on necessity.
Victories such as these aren't just another win in the left-hand column; they're momentum builders.
And Lord knows the Lakers are going to need plenty of those.
Revenge is a dish best served now.
Though the Lakers evened the series score against the Blazers just before the New Year, this is still the team that took out (kidding) Steve Nash. Really, though, this has more to do with the Blazers currently being 2.5 games ahead of Los Angeles in the standings.
LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Damian Lillard are not a trio to be trifled with. As a preordained cellar-dweller, Portland is relishing in the opportunity to prove some of their greatest critics wrong.
Unfortunately, the Lakers are going to be forced to not only tango with the Blazers but do so in must-win fashion.
Losing to teams that directly stand between Los Angeles and a playoff berth simply isn't an option.
Rendering this one of many games where the Lakers' only option is to win.
Los Angeles began the season with a disappointing loss to Dallas, one they have since avenged. Yet that's not enough.
The Mavericks are just 1.5 games behind the Lakers in the standings right now and while they seem like an even longer shot to make the playoffs, Los Angeles can't afford to perpetuate what little hope they have left.
Partly because this bout is followed by a road game against the Nuggets, but mostly because the Lakers can't afford to lose to anyone with a legitimate shot at making the playoffs.
And that includes the Dirk Nowitzki-led Mavericks, who have won seven of their last 11.
I stand by what I said about the Timberwolves being unable to make the playoffs. But that doesn't mean they can't play the part of spoiler.
Injuries continue to run amok in Minnesota, yet the Timberwolves continue to embody resilience.
Kevin Love should still be on the shelf for this one, but that only renders the Timberwolves slightly less dangerous.
As we saw in the Lakers' 111-100 win in these two teams' first and only meeting of the season thus far, Minnesota's defense matches up fairly well against Los Angeles' offense.
Decimation suggests that the Lakers rip-roll through the Timberwolves the second time around, but against a stingy defense and a vexing offense that is capable of exploding, victory is far from a guarantee.
The Lakers, however, will have to make it one if they wish to position themselves in the standings properly.
This one's more important than you think.
The Sacramento Kings don't have a shot at making the playoffs, but they represent a seeming pushover that the Lakers cannot afford to come up short against.
Prior to this contest, the Lakers will have played three games on the road—against Eastern Conference teams, no less—and will be staring down the barrel of another away game against the Suns.
Los Angeles has proven to be incapable on the road (7-16 thus far), rendering every home game against every opponent of the utmost importance.
Especially a contest like this, which comes at the tail end of the Lakers playing four of five away from Staples Center.
That Los Angeles has already lost a game to the oft-submissive Kings only increases the significance of notching another victory.
Los Angeles' poor play on the road can't afford to crop up in their final meeting against Minnesota.
Again, the Timberwolves are 5.5 games back of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, and their hopes of a miracle comeback are waning. But that doesn't make them any less formidable.
By this point, Kevin Love may have returned and Los Angeles will have yet another versatile scorer to defend. Minny is a tough beat even without him, yet when he's in the lineup, their offensive dynamic improves by leaps and bounds. Not to mention that he can also cause problems for Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol on the glass.
Will the Timberwolves be back in the playoff hunt this late in the season?
I'd say unlikely.
Will the former impact the importance behind Los Angeles winning this game?
There's no telling how much this one could mean.
Dallas will be in the middle of a 10-game stretch (including the Lakers) where each of its opponents will likely boast a record above .500. Fresh off consecutive contests against the churlish defensive stylings of the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers, the Mavericks will be begging for an open lane.
If the rest of the season has been any indication, Los Angeles might just give it to them.
Admittedly, Dallas' playoff hopes could be dashed courtesy of this brutal span of games, yet it could just leave the the Mavs desperate. Or (dare I say it) riding a wave of momentum.
If Dallas proves it can contend with the likes of this gauntlet it will be navigating its way through, the Lakers will be in trouble.
But not as much trouble as they'll be in if they allow said (hypothetical) momentum to cost them the game.
This one could mean something, or it could mean everything.
Portland is currently 2.5 games ahead of Los Angeles in the standings and assuming these two factions post similar records the rest of the way, their final two meetings could nearly make up that entire difference.
Which is why the Lakers have to win both.
Bouts against fellow fringes are not to be understated. They allow the Lakers to gain one game's worth of ground in the standings and thus control the outcome of any tiebreakers that may arise. They also present them with the opportunity to fall one more game behind.
Adding to the importance behind winning here, though, is Los Angeles' schedule leading into and outside this one.
After the Lakers play the Mavericks, they'll face the Grizzlies and the Clippers just before heading to Portland. Following the Blazers, they'll then travel back to Los Angeles to face the Warriors, Spurs and (spoiler alert) Rockets.
That's a brutal five-game stretch, yet it's one that lessens in severity if the Lakers can ruin LaMarcus Aldridge and company's night on their own turf.
Losing for a third straight time to the Rockets isn't an option for the Lakers.
Houston already holds the rights to any tiebreaker that arises, but Los Angeles can't give it the satisfaction of a series sweep.
This game closes out the Lakers' regular season and considering how inconsistent Los Angeles has been and how tight the race is for the final two playoff spots, this could be the contest that determines whether Tinseltown sees the light of the postseason.
For good measure, it must be noted that even if the Rockets somehow fall out of postseason contention by this point (they won't), they're a young and exuberant aggregate that isn't about to roll over and let Los Angeles traipse its way into the playoffs.
That whether this one holds playoff implications for both teams or just the Lakers, Kobe Bryant and crew must be at the top of their game. They can't afford to fall victim to Houston's uptempo offense and buoyant legs yet again.
Not unless they're content with writing a tragic, and subsequently postseason-less, end to their already turbulent season.