There are many different ways the Los Angeles Lakers' season can end, but this much is sure: It will definitely end Wednesday night if they lose to Houston and the Utah Jazz beat Memphis.
However, if they lose and the Jazz also lose, they'll scrape into the playoffs as the Western Conference's No. 8 seed.
And regardless of what the Jazz do, the Lakers will capture the seventh seed out West if they defeat Houston. Finishing with the seventh seed is something that didn't seem to be a possibility a mere four days ago. The fact that the seventh seed is on the line makes the Rockets vs Lakers matchup all the more vital for both teams.
However, the Lakers will have to face Houston without two of their best players.
Kobe Bryant, the team's superstar, underwent season-ending surgery last Saturday after he tore his Achilles tendon in a win against Golden State. While the surgery went well, Bryant's season is obviously done.
The Lakers will also be without point guard Steve Nash, who is out with a strained hamstring. Nash has been out since late March, and it is hopeful that he would return if the team makes the playoffs.
Without these two former MVPs, the weight of the team falls on to the shoulders of Dwight Howard, who more than understands his new role.
"With Kobe out, I understand that I have to do more and be more for this team." Dwight Howard said on NBA.com. "This is a great opportunity for me, and I believe I can do it."
Howard has showcased his tremendous talent against Houston before. November 18 was the first matchup between the two teams this season. Dwight Howard led the Lakers in scoring with 28 points while scooping up 13 rebounds as well.
But perhaps the key to the 119-108 Laker win was Kobe Bryant's triple-double. Bryant dropped 22 points, snatched 11 rebounds and dished out 11 assists in the win, and really set the tempo for the entire game.
To pull off another victory against Houston, someone has to fill the gaping hole that Bryant left, and Howard is well aware that he can't do it alone.
"It's not just me," he said. "It's all of us. With him out we all have to do our part to make this happen. We believe in each other and we have to go out there and win. We're going to give it everything we've got."
Although Howard is certainly the focal point for the Lakers, it is expected that players like Pau Gasol and Steve Blake will pull their weight to give Howard a sufficient amount of help.
The Rockets, on the other hand, will look to their All-Star, James Harden, who is currently fifth in the NBA in points per game average (25.5 ppg). In the last matchup with the Lakers, Harden really left is mark on the game, dropping a game-high 31 points against the Lakers.
Harden is known as a tremendous scorer and an excellent passer, and when looking at the Wednesday night matchup, it is Harden that is most likely to give the Lakers trouble. With Metta World Peace still recovering and Bryant injured, the Lakers lack a defender that can match Harden's offensive ability.
Despite the Lakers injuries, Houston coach Kevin McHale isn't underestimating L.A.'s ability and intensity.
"We are going to play a very determined L.A. team." McHale said to CBSSports.com. "We have to play well."
When looking back on the season, Houston point guard Jeremy Lin can see one weakness in his team's play — and that is the Rockets' focus.
"I think that has been one of our problems all season — focus," Lin told CBSSports.com. "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."
Perhaps one of the least-talked-about players on the Rockets roster is the second year player out of Florida, Chandler Parsons. Parsons has really emerged into a lethal weapon for the Rockets this year, and his combination of size (6 foot 9) and speed makes him a very tough player to defend.
He is a prolific scorer; excellent at driving the ball and scoring in the paint, while at the same time, is a deadly 3-point marksman. His scoring ability is extremely underrated, and he currently is the second-leading scorer on Houston (15.4 ppg) behind Harden.
When these two teams clash Wednesday night, Houston will most likely do its most damage with its wing scorers, and if their jump shots are falling, then Houston will be tough to beat.
The Lakers will look to play the same high-low game they've played in Bryant's absence, using their size to bully around their opponent before kicking it out to shooters when double teams arrive down low.
The game will take place in Los Angeles, and the Lakers are hoping that the Tinsel Town crowd will give them the edge they need; and in a close matchup like this one, the home-court advantage may end up being just the trump card the Lakers need to win.
Wednesday night's clash between these two hungry ballclubs promises to be very entertaining. This game is the end of a very long road for both teams, and it all comes down to who will cross the finish line first.
So with the pressure on, who will crack?
For additional NBA updates, you can follow Mitch Kunzler on Twitter: @MitchKunzler
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