Road Trip Preview: NO/HOU/DAL/UT

While the Lakers have already played a monstrous nine-game road trip this season, the shorter four game trip they’re about to embark on should prove just as much of a challenge for Kobe and Co. Starting Friday in New Orleans, the Lakers will take on four of the West’s best teams—the Hornets, Rockets, Mavericks and Jazz—all with at least 40 wins with less than a quarter of the season to go.

The up-start Hornets (3/14) will be fresh off a game against the team knocking on the Lakers’ door for first place in the West: the defending champion Spurs. The last time the Lakers played in the Big Easy, they decimated Chris Paul’s Hornets 109-80 in one of L.A.’s most lopsided victories of the season. As a result, its safe to say the Hornets and the New Orleans Arena crowd will be extra revved up to face the Lakers this time around.

Next up for the Lakers are the scorching hot Houston Rockets (3/16), winners of 19 straight games, even though franchise center Yao Ming left eight games ago due to a season-ending injury. When the Lakers come to town, only games against the Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Bobcats will stand in the way between them and a 21-game winning streak. After Tuesday’s game, Kobe said the Lakers did not care whether or not the streak was still in tact when L.A. faces off with Houston, but there’s no doubting that the Lakers would love to be the ones to send the Rockets back down to Earth.

After a day in between games, the Lakers will head to the Big D for a rematch with the same Dallas Mavericks team they beat less than two weeks ago at home, 108-104 (3/18). In that game, Jason Kidd missed a potential game-tying free throw that sent the Mavs tumbling as they dropped their next two games against the Jazz and Rockets as well. With victories over the Nets and Knicks since, plus games against Bobcats, Heat and Pacers before playing L.A., Dallas figures to be playing with a lot more momentum this time around.

The Lakers close out the trip against the Utah Jazz (3/20), who are a league-leading 28-3 at the intimidating Energy Solutions Arena. Currently sitting a comfortable (by Western Conference standards) four games ahead of the second-place Nuggets in the Northwest Division, the Jazz are virtually guaranteed no worse than the four seed in the playoffs. Although it was early in the season, the Lakers still owe the Jazz a good whipping after Utah dismantled them 120-96 in Salt Lake City in their last meeting.

With only five games separating the eighth place team (Golden State) from the first place team (L.A.), every game from here on out is critical for the Lakers. While this is certainly the most difficult four-game stretch of the season for the conference-leading Lakers, none of the four games come on back-to-back nights so it’s reasonable to expect at least two, if not three wins from the Lakers before returning home to face the Sonics on March 21.