The Los Angeles Lakers had already been struggling over the course of their last five games, but a knee injury to center Andrew Bynum in the second quarter of Tuesday's game against the San Antonio Spurs could change things significantly.
Bynum stepped on Spurs forward Dejuan Blair's foot and seemed to hyper-extend his knee, but the scariest image was Bynum's body language in the aftermath.
Bynum sat on the floor with his head cradled in his knees and when he did make his face visible the pain was impossible to miss.
The Lakers have scheduled an MRI for Wednesday, but by the looks of things the prognosis could be grim.
Bynum did walk off the court under his own power and that is an encouraging sign, but there is a chance that the already injury-depleted Lakers could be facing yet another postseason with a less than healthy Bynum.
The Lakers attitude seemed to change after Bynum went down, and instead of feeling a sense of urgency against the short-handed Spurs, the Lakers seemed to be stunned by Bynum's injury.
San Antonio sat Tim Duncan and Tony Parker for Tuesday's game, but the Spurs' reserves were giving the Lakers starters all they could handle up until Bynum was injured.
The outcome of that game does have a bearing on the final seedings for the playoffs, but the bigger question is what happens to the Lakers if Bynum is unable to go in the postseason?
Most people assume that the Lakers are a solid candidate for the 2011 NBA Finals even without Bynum, and although that statement may be true, the chances of the Lakers winning once they get there are slim.
Bynum gives the Lakers a size advantage in the post when paired with Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom that few teams in the NBA can match, but the toughness he adds may be irreplaceable.
Bynum has the strength and mean streak to neutralize the perception that the Lakers are soft in the middle, and neither Gasol nor Odom can replicate Bynum's impact in the post.
The Lakers definitely have enough talent to advance in the playoffs without Bynum if they play focused and motivated, but it will be hard to replace his 12 rebounds and 11 points per game since the All-Star break.
Before their current swoon, most observers were praising Bynum for the Lakers recent streak of 17 wins in 18 games, and some people—including myself—viewed him as the most critical piece in the Lakers three-peat hunt.
Bynum was not fully healthy in either of the past two playoffs yet the Lakers were still able to capture consecutive championships with his presence, but in 2008 Bynum did not play in the Finals and the Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics in six games.
The fact that the Lakers did not win a championship in the lone season Bynum was unable to play in the last three NBA Finals does not mean that the Lakers cannot win this year.
But if his knee injury does prevent Bynum from playing in the postseason it makes the Lakers road to a three-peat that much tougher.