EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The Los Angeles Lakers were able to pull off the rare feat of hosting representatives from the religious and secular worlds with equal aplomb at Wednesday's practice.
But what was on the minds of the Lakers was the team that's nearly their equal in the standings, the Dallas Mavericks, more than their distinguished guests.
Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles and Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani of Peru observed practice side by side members of a film crew taping practice for the first time for the E! channel's "Khloe & Lamar" show, Lamar Odom's reality TV program set to debut April 10.
As big as their audience was Wednesday, the Lakers know their game Thursday is even bigger.
The Lakers and Mavericks have both played 73 games this season and after more than five months of basketball, only a single game separates the two teams for the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference with nine games remaining in the regular season.
The Mavericks can cut that lead to just a half-game with a win against the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday.
The Lakers host the Mavs on Thursday in a rubber match after they split their first two meetings of the season. Thursday's showdown amounts to more than just a 1-of-82 affair.
"I would say it's a big game," said Odom. "There's been so many big games this year, but this is definitely one of the biggest."
Added Lakers head coach Phil Jackson: "It creates an opportunity to get some space between us and Dallas. But it's still not the end, obviously."
Things don't get any easier for the Lakers after the Mavericks as Thursday's game kicks off a stretch of nine games in 14 days to finish the season. It includes two sets of back-to-backs and games against playoff-bound teams in Denver, Portland, Oklahoma City and San Antonio.
"Every game right now has a huge amount of significance," said Odom.
The Lakers played in Dallas in mid-January, with the Mavericks riding a six-game losing streak that began shortly after Caron Butler went out of the lineup with right knee surgery. The Mavs snapped their losing streak by beating L.A. and have gone 26-7 since then.
"I'm not surprised at all," said Kobe Bryant, who did not practice Wednesday, opting to rest his left ankle and ice his knees. "They have so much talent, so much depth. Picking up [Corey] Brewer was a big help for them. You look at their roster individually, they're stacked. Having [Butler] go down was a huge blow to them. Having him back in the lineup would be a huge plus, but they've been able to make it through."
Butler is eyeing a comeback, but it is unlikely that he would be available to play when the playoffs begin in three weeks.
"He's working his [butt] off," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle told ESPNDallas.com last week. "We'll see. He's just going to keep going. He's going to stay aggressive with it and we'll see what's what when time comes."
While the Lakers have won seven straight and 15 of 16 since the All-Star break, the Mavericks are on a four-game winning streak that could extend to five with a win against the Clippers and hold the best road record in the league at 26-10.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.