The Lakers stumbled through Week 11, falling to 16-21 on the season. The Portland Trail Blazers are still in eighth place in the Western Conference at 20-17. Last week the gap was three games for the Lakers, now it's four.
Howard is back from his shoulder injury and the Lakers hope to have Gasol shortly as well. If the Lakers can get a win over the Miami Heat, it could give the floundering team a lasting boost.
Jan. 15 vs. Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks recently parted ways with Scott Skiles, promoting Jim Boylan as the team's interim head coach. They've won three of their last four including a victory in Chicago.
At 19-17, the Bucks are a playoff team in the Eastern Conference. Offensively Milwaukee has two high-scoring guards in Monta Ellis (18.8 points a game) and Brandon Jennings (18.5). Jennings was just named Eastern Conference Player of the Week while averaging 24.5 points and 6.5 assists.
The Bucks aren't much of an inside team. If the Lakers can slow either Jennings or Ellis, they may be able to carve out a small win streak.
Jan. 17 vs. Miami Heat
Miami has not played especially well the last few weeks, relatively speaking. The Lakers have certainly played far worse.
The Lakers have always had issues against the Cavaliers and Heat with LeBron James, who is averaging 25.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 6.9 assists.
Dwyane Wade (50.5% from the field), Chris Bosh (55.5%) and James (54.1%) are all shooting well for the Heat. If there's anywhere the Heat struggle, it's on the boards.
The Lakers could challenge Miami by playing their best game, but a win over the Cavaliers doesn't suggest the team is suddenly "back."
Jan. 20 at Toronto Raptors
The early Sunday start in Toronto is an awkward time for the Lakers. The Raptors are exactly the kind of team the Lakers need to beat if they want a shot at the postseason.
Toronto has been relatively hot since losing Andrea Bargnani and Kyle Lowry to injury. Lowry is back and Jose Calderon has reestablished himself as a leader for the Raptors. Amir Johnson has been playing well in Bargnani's absence.
At 14-23, Toronto's record isn't much worse than the Lakers. They'll be a difficult opponent for the Lakers, who simply can't afford to lose two out of three this week.