Like a Hollywood script, the Lakers' (44-37) playoff hope rests in the final game of the season.
But the drama isn't theirs alone.
Utah is in Memphis fighting to make the playoffs if they beat the Grizzlies, who are trying to clinch home court advantage over the Clippers by beating the Jazz.
Then, there are the Houston Rockets (45-36) — a team most likely trying to avoid a 1st-round bout with the reigning Western Conference champs Thunder. But if they go down at Staples Center tonight against the Lakers, they will have no choice but to face OKC as they will surrender the 7th seed to the purple and gold despite ending their season with the same record and tying the season series with the Lakers at 2 apiece.
That's because the Lakers own a better record against conference foes at currently 27-24 versus 24-27 for Houston.
But with everything that has happened this season for L.A., they still control their own playoff destiny. And for 48 minutes, the league's 24th-best defensive team will have to rely on one another to stop the league's highest-scoring offense from crushing their playoff aspirations.
However, the Lakers may already know if they are in or not since the Jazz-Grizzlies game should end right before their tip-off with the Rockets.
Here's hoping that Mike D'Antoni will not allow the team to scoreboard watch before the game. If the Jazz lose tonight, there's a strong possibility that complacency will set in for the Lakers tonight. That's the last thing D'Antoni wants to happen.
Complacency is the reason why the Lakers have been losing big leads this season. If that sets in tonight, the Lakers could very well lose. And if they lose (along with the Jazz), that's not a good vibe to bring into the playoffs whether they'll be facing San Antonio or the dreaded Oklahoma City in the opening round.
This team has zero margin for error considering that they won't have Kobe Bryant at all and Steve Nash for who knows how long.
Those are the 2 players they all consider as their leaders that also happen to be their best perimeter weapons. Without those 2 in this game, don't be surprised if the Rockets force the Lakers' shooters to beat them by focusing in on both Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol in the paint.
Jeremy Lin, Carlos Delfino, Chandler Parsons and James Harden are their best players at stripping the ball loose. Look for them to double either big and force them to become playmakers instead of scorers.
The Rockets may be the 3rd-worst defensive team in the league, but that doesn't mean they don't have what it takes to foil the Lakers. They've done it twice already this season, albeit at home.
Focus, tenacity and consistency will need to be on the side of the Lakers tonight. They will also have to rely on both Howard and Gasol to lead them to victory.
If the Lakers can dominate the paint on both ends of the floor, that will put pressure on the Rocket perimeter game to keep its consistency. But if Metta World Peace and Steve Blake can make Lin and Harden uncomfortable enough out there, maybe that will greatly slow down this explosive offense.
But the most important thing for the Lakers tonight is they can't stop believing in one another.
This is the 4th and final game of the season and the season series for these teams. The Lakers have not lost at home against the Rockets this year and are 4-1 in their last 5 meetings at Staples Center.
Matchup of the Game
Jeremy Lin vs. Steve Blake: For all of his hype from last year, Lin is still a streaky shooter who really needs to get into the paint to make an impact. Blake helped Tony Parker shoot 1-out-of-10 in their win against the Spurs on Sunday. He will have to be tenacious on D again tonight versus Lin and whoever else he ends up guarding. The outcome of the game may not rely on what happens in this matchup, but make no mistake, it will be a factor for either team.
Keys to the Game
> Team Game: Consider tonight's game a playoff game since it will have the same feel and look of one. The Lakers have to take this game as the final test to see if they are truly ready for the post-season. Banding together, especially on the defensive end, is monumentally crucial. But they should already know that.
> Slow Down Harden: The Rockets may have plenty of shooters, but Harden is their leader. Metta will most likely start on him, so he has to make sure he sets the tone for the Lakers defensively. As I've mentioned before, the first step to beating a team is taking care of their best player. Hopefully, MWP will take that challenge tonight and conquer it.
> Defense: Houston turns the ball over more times than any team in the NBA (yes, that includes the Lakers) with nearly 16 turnovers a game. Not saying that the Lakers are capable of putting the pressure on ballhandlers and passers all the time, but they have to make sure they don't allow the Rockets do whatever they want on offense. Defensive rotations and staying home with shooters are going to be the biggest keys on defense for the Lakers tonight. Oh and slowing down a few fast breaks won't hurt either.
Watch Out For
ROCKETS: Chandler Parsons: Delfino may be the first guy that pops in the mind of most Laker fans as the role player that hurts the Lakers most, but Parsons is THE one guy for the Rockets who can do it on both sides of the floor. He can shoot, attack the rim, rebound, pass, and of course, play solid defense.
LAKERS: Pau Gasol: Pau averages 17 points and 5 boards against the Rockets this season, but look for those numbers, especially rebounding, to go up tonight. He rebounded well against the Spurs with 16, but he did not shoot the ball well making only 3 of his 17 tries from the field. Pau understands the gravity of this game and has the experience in identifying the areas of his game he needs to step up. Let's see what he does.
vs. Houston Rockets
Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. (PST)
TV: TWC SportsNet (Southern California)/ESPN (national)
Radio: 710 AM ESPN/1330 KWKW
LAKERS: Kobe Bryant (Achilles) is out for 6-9 months. Jordan Hill (hip) and Steve Nash (hamstring) are out.