Lakers vs. Wolves preview: 8th seed in reach for L.A.

Doug Pensinger

Don't look now, but a win on Thursday would put the Lakers only two games behind the Rockets for the final playoff spot in the West.

At this point in the season, every game is a must-win for the Lakers, especially a home date against a sub-.500 team like the Wolves. After going 10-5 in their last 15 games, L.A. has crawled back into the playoff race in the Western Conference and is now only 2 1/2 games behind Houston.

However, their schedule picks up over the last two months of the season, with only six more home games against sub-.500 competition left. Both the Jazz and the Rockets, the two teams the Lakers have a realistic chance of catching,have easier schedules down the stretch, so L.A. cannot afford any slip-ups against teams such as Minnesota.

The Wolves opened the season to fanfare, but a series of devastating injuries has left them limping to the finish. As a result, they will miss the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season, the longest streak in the NBA. Minnesota was 14-13 at the start of the new year, but 2013 has brought them nothing but grief and they've gone 6-20 since the calendar turned.

One encouraging sign has been the play of Derrick Williams, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 Draft, who may finally have turned a corner in the past few weeks. Williams has averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds in the last five games, as he's developed a chemistry with Ricky Rubio and begun attacking the rim more instead of settling for jumpers on the perimeter.

The Battle of the Big Men

Dwight Howard has struggled with injury and indifference at times this season, but he'd better come ready to play on Thursday against Nikola Pekovic. Pekovic, a 6'11, 290-pound brick wall who looks like a Bond villain, is one of the toughest covers in the NBA at the center position. He'll try to establish a physical tone and attack Howard early.

With Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill out, L.A. can't afford for Howard to get into foul trouble. The only other center on their roster is rookie second-round pick Robert Sacre, so coach Mike D'Antoni has made do with a rotation of Earl Clark and Antawn Jamison behind Howard. That's not a duo exactly known for their ability to protect the rim, which is a huge problem given the amount of aging players the Lakers have on the perimeter.

The game, set to tip off at 10:30 p.m. ET, will be broadcast nationally on TNT.

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