With the regular season winding down, Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers control their own destiny.
Making the playoffs, though, likely won't prove easy with a difficult schedule down the stretch.
Though they are facing a Portland Trail Blazers team riding its longest losing streak in seven seasons, the Lakers are seeking a rare win at the Rose Garden as their postseason push continues Wednesday night just 24 hours after a hard-fought victory.
Los Angeles (41-37) is coming off its fourth win in five games, 104-96 over New Orleans on Tuesday. That result, combined with Utah's loss to Oklahoma City, moved the Lakers into the eighth and final playoff spot in the West.
Tuesday's game saw Los Angeles trailing well into the fourth quarter, during which Bryant scored 23 of his 30 points.
"I really was just trying to pace myself," Bryant said. "I know fatigue comes in when you play so many minutes. So, I really just tried to lay back and manage the game and turn it on at the right time."
Pau Gasol added 22 points to go with 11 rebounds, and Metta World Peace played 15 minutes off the bench in his first game after missing six following left knee surgery.
"We just needed this game," Dwight Howard said after scoring 19 points. "It was intense. We got four games left. We control our own destiny."
Los Angeles now sits one-half game ahead of the Jazz, who own the tiebreaker due to a better head-to-head record. Utah, though, only has three games remaining.
The Lakers, however, are 2-8 on the back end of games on back-to-back nights. While Wednesday's game is their last on the road, the Lakers conclude their schedule against three playoff-bound teams - Golden State, West-leading San Antonio and Houston.
Los Angeles has won back-to-back meetings and four of five against the Trail Blazers (33-44), but they've lost three straight and 12 of 14 at the Rose Garden. Plus, the most recent meeting went down to the wire even though it was at Staples Center, as the Lakers won 111-107 on Feb. 22.
Portland had lost six straight going into that matchup and enters this one having dropped eight in a row. The Blazers have been outscored by an average of 15.8 points during the current skid, their longest since 2005-06.
After trailing by as many as 26 points Sunday against Dallas, Portland clawed its way back to within three with 39 seconds left but lost 96-91.
"That's a step up from what we've been doing. We finished the game better. But I don't believe in moral victories," said star rookie Damian Lillard, who had 15 points on 6-of-19 shooting.
While things aren't looking up for the Blazers, rookie Will Barton proved to be a rare bright spot Sunday, posting season highs of 22 points, 13 rebounds and six assists off the bench.
The second-round pick out of Memphis could draw his first start Wednesday in place of the injured Wesley Matthews (ankle).
"Anytime you're a guy coming off the bench, and you never know when you're going to play, your job is just to stay ready," he said. "Everyone on the team says I've got a special talent. You've just got to wait your turn sometimes."
Besides Matthews' absence, the Blazers could be without Nicolas Batum, who has missed the last three games with a shoulder injury. J.J. Hickson is listed as questionable due to a sore back.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
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