It’s quite simple for the Los Angeles Lakers heading into their regular-season finale Wednesday night.
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Beat the Houston Rockets, and the seventh seed in the Western Conference playoffs is theirs. Lose, and Kobe Bryant may not have to worry about watching his team in the postseason.
Los Angeles could know its postseason fate before they take the court Wednesday, as Utah begins its contest at Memphis 2 1/2 hours before the Lakers and Rockets tip off at Staples Center.
A Jazz loss would give Los Angeles a playoff berth no matter its result, but a Utah victory would force the Lakers (44-37) to knock off Houston to avoid missing the postseason for the first time since 2005.
Los Angeles has won four in a row, but Bryant is facing six-to-nine months of recovery time after having surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon suffered in Friday’s 118-116 win over Golden State.
Dwight Howard had 26 points and 17 rebounds while Steve Blake scored a season-high 23 in Sunday’s 91-86 home win over San Antonio – Los Angeles’ first-round opponent if it can win Wednesday.
"This is a great opportunity for myself and this team to show who we are," said Howard, averaging 23.6 points over his last five. "We’ve got to give it everything we’ve got. We’re going to fight to the end and do our best. Despite whatever has happened this season, we’ve got a chance to win this next game, go into the playoffs and make history.
"With Kobe out, I understand that I have to do more and be more for this team. This is a great opportunity for me, and I believe I can do it."
The Lakers, though, may need a better offensive performance to avoid a third straight loss to Houston after shooting just 36.5 percent Sunday.
"We have players that won’t give up, that won’t quit," said Pau Gasol, who averaged 23.7 points over his previous three games before scoring seven on 3-of-17 shooting Sunday. "We’ve been through quite a bit this season, but we’re still here, and we’re going to continue to be here as long as we can."
Gasol and Howard both were out with injuries when Houston (45-36) beat Los Angeles 125-112 in the most recent meeting Jan. 8 behind James Harden’s 31 points.
Harden shot 5 of 18 and scored 16 as the Rockets fell 119-112 at West-worst Phoenix on Monday. That left Houston in danger of falling into the No. 8 spot and a first-round matchup with Oklahoma City – the team that dealt Harden to the Rockets during the offseason.
"I think that has been one of our problems all season – focus," said Jeremy Lin, who scored 20 points and is averaging 18.0 in April. "Every game means so much. We are talking about playoff seeding. We are talking about matchups and things that are more important than anything we played for all season."
The Rockets still have a chance to earn the sixth seed with a win and a Golden State loss to Portland on Wednesday. If both teams win, Houston ends up in the seventh spot and will face San Antonio in the first round.
Coach Kevin McHale, though, isn’t worried about any of that just yet.
"We are going to play a very determined L.A. team. We have to play well," McHale said.
Houston has won four of the last five meetings with the Lakers, with the loss coming 119-108 on Nov. 18 at Staples Center as Howard finished with 28 points and 13 rebounds.