Lakers have company in battle for eighth spot in West

The Lakers have issues, Kobe Bryant's ankle being the biggest.

Bryant severely sprained his left ankle against the Hawks on Wednesday night, and though he tried to return Friday night at Indiana, this was clearly the last thing the Lakers needed as they cling desperately to the eighth playoff spot in the West.

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But LA also has other problems. One is the imminent return of Pau Gasol from a torn plantar fascia in his right foot. Getting one of the league's most talented big men back from injury should be a plus, but given Gasol's struggles in Mike D'Antoni's offense before he got hurt, his return does not promise to be a smooth one.

Then there are the outside forces conspiring against the Lakers. Namely, the Mavericks and Trail Blazers. Somehow both teams are nipping at the Lakers' heels as we enter the final five weeks of the regular season. Heading into Friday night's action, the Mavs and Blazers were tied at three games behind the Lakers for the eighth spot. The Jazz are fading, but let's not count them out as they're only a half-game behind LA in ninth.

Many times, the race for playoff spots comes down to injuries. When it isn't injuries, it's the schedule. Here's how the remaining slate shakes out:

Jazz: Ten home games left, seven away. Remaining opponents have won 53 percent of their games, according to PlayoffStatus.com.

Trail Blazers: Nine home, nine away. Remaining opponents have won 56 percent of their games.

Mavericks: Twelve home, six away. Remaining opponents have won 53 percent of their games.

Lakers: Eight home, eight away. Remaining opponents' record is .500.

Taking remaining home/away games and strength of remaining schedule into account, Dallas clearly is the biggest threat to Bryant's postseason guarantee coming true. Also, the Lakers are the only team in this group of four that doesn't have more remaining home games than road games left. Don't forget: the Lakers are 12-21 on the road.

Does all of this mean the Lakers won't make the playoffs? Not at all. But does it mean they'll have to earn it, regardless of how many games Bryant misses or how effective Gasol is when he returns? No question.

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