Los Angeles will again be without Kobe Bryant on Wednesday night when it visits the Spurs in a matchup of division leaders.
San Antonio's 11-game winning streak ended with Monday's 91-84 loss to Utah, but extending the run was of little concern to Gregg Popovich. After bowing out in a first-round series as the No. 1 seed in last season's playoffs, Popovich wants his veteran team fresh for a championship drive this spring.
He has periodically given Duncan, Parker and Ginobili time off, and Monday all three rested, leaving a combined average of 46.8 points on the bench. Not surprisingly, the Spurs (40-15) finished with their third-lowest scoring output of the season -- 24.4 points less than they averaged during their winning streak.
The loss, coupled with an Oklahoma City win, dropped the Spurs one game back of the Thunder for first place in the Western Conference.
Maintaining good health, however, is the biggest priority for San Antonio, which enters Wednesday's contest tied with Cleveland for the fewest games played with 55. The Spurs close the season with 11 games in 16 days, including three against the Lakers (36-22), whom they split their four games with last year. By comparison, Los Angeles has eight games left.
Like San Antonio, the Lakers are also hoping to make the playoffs at full strength. Bryant's health is obviously invaluable to Los Angeles, but the 14-time All-Star is a bit banged-up.
Bryant, the NBA's leading scorer at 28.1 points, will miss his third straight game with a sore left shin. He has worn a walking boot to protect an inflammation surrounding a tendon, and the only way it will improve is with rest.
"It's OK that it's taking time for him to get right," coach Mike Brown told the team's official website after practice Tuesday.
The Lakers have split their two games without Bryant -- losing to Phoenix 125-105 Saturday and beating West-worst New Orleans 93-91 two days later.
Pau Gasol has stepped up his play in Bryant's absence, finishing with a season-high 30 points against the Suns and scoring 25 versus the Hornets. Andrew Bynum also helped the Lakers stay strong inside without their top playmaker, combining for 41 points in the last two.
"I'm one of the anchors -- when (Bryant) is not there, even more -- so I get a lot more involved in the offense," said Gasol, who averages 17.3 points. "I'm not trying to be the main guy here. We have a great team and some great weapons. ... I just picked up a little bit the role of scoring and being aggressive offensively just because, obviously, the absence of the top scorer in the league."
The Lakers were strong defensively down the stretch Monday, limiting New Orleans to 19 points on 34.8 percent shooting in the fourth quarter, but containing a San Antonio team averaging 112.6 points during an eight-game home winning streak seems like a much bigger challenge.
Parker is averaging 21.7 points on 59.4 percent shooting in his last nine at the AT&T Center, while Duncan is averaging 18.7 points and 12.2 rebounds in his last six there.
Duncan, however, struggled mightily in his three games against the Lakers last season, averaging 4.0 points on 19.2 percent shooting.
Bynum also wasn't much of a factor offensively in last season's series, averaging 7.0 points.
Bryant totaled 53 points in the two wins against San Antonio in 2010-11 but only 37 on 28.9 percent shooting in the defeats.