COMMENTARY | No one could have envisioned that a Kobe Bryant-led team that features the likes of five All-Stars in the starting lineup would struggle to make the playoffs, but that's where the Los Angeles Lakers have found themselves with just four games left in the season.
After defeating the New Orleans Hornets at Staples Center on Tuesday night and recapturing a half-game lead over the Utah Jazz for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, L.A. not only has plenty of work to do on its own, but has to keep an eye on the Jazz. L.A. is in control of its season outcome and is in should they win out, but the Jazz's favorable schedule (two of their final three games are against the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves) combined with a brutal final three games of their own will make things difficult.
From a scheduling standpoint, that spells trouble for the purple and gold.
The Lakers have been deficient in many areas this season, but a few key areas have cost them valuable positioning in the playoff picture. If they're going to make the postseason, they'll have to be near flawless in the four-game mini-season.
Beat elite teams
The Lakers' final three games are against playoff-bound teams. The Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets will all visit Staples Center with plenty to play for. This season, the Lakers are a combined 2-8 against each of those teams and haven't fared well in the Western Conference in general with a sub-.500 (23-24) record against teams out West.
This time of year, teams typically rest players and often gear down in preparation for the long grind of the playoffs. All three of these teams are jostling for seeding -- they're unlikely to do the same as they face the Lakers. That means they'll get everyone's best shot.
Sweep a back-to-back
If the Lakers fail to win back-to-back games in the 2012-13 season, it will be the first time it's happened in franchise history. There have been many disappointing stats this season, but if they pull this one off, it will be a substantial failure, especially considering that it would be a major component of them missing the playoffs.
On Wednesday night in the Pacific Northwest, they will face the Portland Trail Blazers in the second leg of a back-to-back after the starters logged heavy minutes against the Hornets. Further stacking the odds against the Lakers is the fact that they've lost 18 of their last 22 games at Portland.
They'll need to put all that aside and remain focused against a team that will effectively be playing its own Game 7 with the opportunity to send the Lakers home early.
The "L" factor
If it seems like the Lakers struggle against bad teams, it's likely a case of the underdog digging deep within and giving L.A. their best effort. Case-in-point, the Hornets, a lottery team, played the Lakers tough this season and forced them to make an incredible comeback on the road in their last matchup on March 6.
What will make the final four games a true challenge is the simple fact that the Lakers have that moniker stitched across the players' chests. Translation? They're going to get every team's best shot each night because it's always fashionable to beat L.A.
What better way to do so than to be the team that puts an exclamation point on a shockingly bad season?
With all of that in mind, the Lakers' virtual playoffs start on Wednesday, where they'll emerge from their final four games either battle-tested and ready to take on all comers in the postseason or embarrassed as one of the most disappointing teams in sports history.
The implications are huge, and every game is must-see TV.
Michael C. Jones covers the Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA as a Southern California-based sports journalist and editor. He contributes to SB Nation in addition to Yahoo! Sports and is the Managing Editor of Sports Out West.
Catch up with him on Twitter @MikeJonesTweets
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