It could all come down to this one game for the Los Angeles Lakers (44-37). By the time they tip off with the Houston Rockets (45-36) on Wednesday night, they will probably know whether they have to win to make the playoffs.
Currently, they are a full game ahead of the Utah Jazz for the eighth playoff spot.
Utah plays at the Memphis Grizzlies earlier on Wednesday night. That game should be coming to an end around the time the Lakers-Rockets game begins.
If the Jazz win on the road (because they hold the tie-breaker), the Lakers would have to beat the Rockets at the Staples Center to reach the postseason.
The stakes get even bigger when you consider a Lakers victory would not only clinch a playoff spot, but would also allow them to move past the Rockets into seventh place.
The season series would be tied at two apiece and the Lakers have a better conference record. Thus, they would then get the seventh seed and face the San Antonio Spurs in the first round.
The Rockets own the tiebreaker over the Jazz, so they would then be eighth and locked into a first-round matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Normally, this would be a scenario the Lakers and their fans felt 100 percent comfortable with. But having lost Kobe Bryant for the entire postseason, even their best-case scenario brings about a ton of doubt.
The Lakers won their fourth straight on Sunday. They played their first game without Bryant and knocked off a potential first-round playoff opponent.
They dominated the San Antonio Spurs on the glass behind the efforts of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. Howard had 26 points and 17 rebounds while Gasol had seven points and 16 rebounds.
L.A. also got 23 points from Steve Blake in the 91-86 win.
Meanwhile, the Rockets stumbled to a 119-112 loss to the Phoenix Suns on the road. The Suns had four players with 20 or more points to best the Rockets despite Chandler Parsons' 24 points.
Houston and Los Angeles have played three high-scoring games this season. On Nov. 18, the Lakers won 119-108 at the Staples Center.
Dwight Howard had 28 points and 13 rebounds to lead the Lakers, but Bryant's triple-double was huge. The Mamba had 22 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in the victory.
The Rockets were led by Parsons' 24 points.
In the second meeting on Dec. 4 in Houston, the Rockets' bench offset 39 points from Bryant to eek out a 107-105 win. Toney Douglas (22 points) and Greg Smith (21 points) came off the bench to give the Rockets a huge push.
Houston employed the hack-a-Dwight strategy in this game. Howard made only 8-of-16 from the line.
In the the most recent head-to-head matchup on Jan. 8, the Rockets again defended their home court with a 125-112 win.
Howard didn't play in this game and James Harden had his biggest performance of the season against the Lakers. He went for 31 points to lead the Rockets.
Bryant had 20 points and Metta World Peace had 24 points in a losing effort.
The Lakers are at home for this all-important fourth matchup. Who wins and gains control of the seventh spot?
Here is the information you need to watch this crucial regular-season finale.
When: Wednesday, April 17, at 10:30 p.m. ET
Where: Staples Center in Los Angeles
(per CBS Sports)
Los Angeles Lakers
- Kobe Bryant, SG (Achilles) Out for season
- Steve Nash, PG (Hamstring) Questionable for April 17 vs. Houston
- Jordan Hill, PF (Hip) Out for season
The Rockets have no injuries to report.
- PF—Pau Gasol
- SF—Metta World Peace
- C—Dwight Howard
- SG—Jodie Meeks
- PG—Steve Blake
- PF—Greg Smith
- SF—Chandler Parsons
- C—Omer Asik
- SG—James Harden
- PG—Jeremy Lin
How Far Can the Lakers Go Without Bryant?
If the Lakers do indeed make the postseason, what is their ceiling without the Mamba? I believe they could be a very dangerous team because the strategy for defending them has completely changed.
Los Angeles has no other choice but to work inside-out now. Howard and Gasol have become the top offensive threats and the Lakers can depend on a true high-low post approach.
In my opinion, this is the way the team should have been playing all season. As great as Bryant is, I think a few people are going to be surprised by how well the team plays in the postseason—if they get there.
Bleacher Report's Eric Ball took note of LA's use of Howard and Gasol as well:
With Howard and Gasol getting more touches, they will be more plugged in on the defensive end and on the glass. That concept has already begun as the two combined to pull down 33 rebounds on Sunday.
I'm not going to say they would be legitimate contenders to come out of the Western Conference, but I firmly believe they would have a chance to win a first-round series with the Spurs.
The Spurs are obviously a very good team, so a first-round exit wouldn't be a shock either.
But the Lakers did just beat them without Bryant on Sunday. That was a regular-season matchup technically, but the Lakers are in playoff mode right now.
If they did get past the Spurs, they would probably face the Denver Nuggets in the next round.
This is another team I could see the Lakers competing well against. The Nuggets don't have a true star and I'm not a big believer in teams with ensemble casts in the playoffs.
If they continue to play as hard as they have over the last week, the Lakers could reach the conference finals in a best-case scenario.
Can the Rockets Win a Big Game on the Road?
No matter what happens, the Rockets won't have home-court advantage in their first-round playoff series. They will have to prove they can win a game against a tough team on the road if they hope to advance.
They could score a huge win and major confidence booster by knocking off the Lakers on Wednesday night.
Houston will be playing in a playoff atmosphere for the first time this season. Besides Harden and Asik, not many of the Rockets have postseason experience. Only Aaron Brooks, James Anderson, Carlos Delfino and Francisco Garcia have played in the playoffs.
Will the rest of this young team be ready to rise to occasion? I have my doubts.
Key Matchup: Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol vs. Omer Asik and Greg Smith
The Rockets can't let Howard run wild on Wednesday. If he hangs a 20-point, 20-rebound performance on them, the Lakers' shooters will get open looks and Gasol will have a boat load of assists from the high-post.
Asik and Smith can't match Howard and Gasol's offensive abilities, but they can be just as effective as rebounders and rim protectors.
The Rockets love to get in transition and that starts with Asik's ability to get defensive rebounds. If Howard is producing second-chance buckets, the Lakers will have a huge advantage.
On the other end, if Howard and Gasol are holding the Rockets to one shot, the consequences for the missed three-point attempts will be severe for Houston.
The Rockets shoot more threes than any other team in the NBA. When they're making them, they are almost impossible to beat. But if they aren't falling, the Lakers will have a healthy amount of transition opportunities.
Their twin towers will dominate inside.
The Lakers won't lose this game at home. The advantage this team should have enjoyed in the paint all season will be present Wednesday night.
Unless the Rockets have the three-point shot stuck on automatic, the Lakers will win and claim the seventh seed.
My prediction is Lakers 110, Rockets 103.
Follow me, because I watch more basketball than anyone should admit.