1) Monday, Jan. 16, vs. Dallas
A return to the proverbial scene of the crime. Getting swept is always humiliating, but the two-time defending champions became human white flags while bowing out. Beating Dallas doesn't automatically make the Lakers front runners for a 2012 title, but tying up these loose ends would feel good.
2) Thursday, Feb. 23 at Oklahoma City
Between their steady improvement, the Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook-James Harden core and collectively young legs well suited for a compressed season, the Western Conference championship strikes me the Thunder's for the taking. On the flip side, the Lakers are 4-9 against OKC (postseason included) since their emergence as a playoff team. To reestablish their championship mojo, maintaining success against a legit contender is a must.
3) Thursday, Jan. 19 at Miami
The Heat shellacked the Lakers at Staples last Christmas, then sent Kobe into a postgame shooting frenzy after a win in South Beach. Plus, you may have noticed folks like to compare Kobe and LeBron every now and then. It wouldn't kill the Lakers to beat these cats, especially if this emerges the Finals everyone's dying to see.
4) Sunday, Jan. 8 vs. Memphis
I'm guessing Memphis will be the fashionable dark horse team to win the West after last season's upending of No. 1 seed San Antonio and the return of Rudy Gay. "Pau vs. Marc" remains a fascinating blend of basketball and psychology, while Tony Allen defends Kobe as well as anybody.
5) Thursday, Feb. 9 at Boston
Two squads determined to keep the championship window pried open despite Father Time's agenda, and they genuinely dislike each other? Yeah, who'd wanna watch that?