The Los Angeles Lakers (39-36) hold a half-game lead over the Utah Jazz for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, but that could change on Friday night. Utah will host the Hornets while the Lakers will host the Memphis Grizzlies (51-24). If L.A. slips up and Utah wins, the Jazz take back the eighth seed based on the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Memphis is a much tougher opponent, but these are the types of games the Lakers will have to win to hold off the Jazz. Five of the final seven games for L.A. will be played at the Staples Center -- where the Lakers are 24-12 on the season -- but they come against playoff-caliber teams like the Grizzlies, Warriors, Spurs and Rockets. It's a blade that could cut in either direction for Kobe Bryant's squad. It will be interesting to see how the Lakers handle their first test on Friday night.
That's not to say that the Grizzlies lack a serious stake in the outcome. Memphis has won four straight and now sits just a half-game behind the Denver Nuggets for the third-best record in the West. They have a window of opportunity to catch Denver in the wake of the injury to Danilo Gallinari.
The focus for Lakers fans right now is the defense of Dwight Howard. After a slow start to the season, Howard has started to seriously impact games on the defensive end of the floor again. At Lakers blog Sliver Screen and Roll, they say it's up to D-12 to get the job done:
Fair or unfair, Howard will need to play heavy minutes. Fair or unfair, Howard will be asked to destroy opposing pick-and-rolls, rotate to contest shots, and the recover for the rebound all in a span of seconds. Fair or unfair, Howard will need to keep the opposition to fewer than 100 points each game. These are the type of demands that are placed on whoever is to assume the role of franchise cornerstone.
Drew Garrison of Silver Screen and Roll has assembled a video breakdown of Howard's defense that should give Lakers fans hope:
The Lakers are a 2.5-point favorite at home and the over/under for the game is 191 points, according to Odds Shark. Tip time is 10:30 p.m. ET, and the game will be televised on TWC Sportsnet and NBA League Pass.