Los Angeles Lakers: Their Ideal Road to the NBA Finals

Howard RubenContributor IApril 18, 2012

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 13:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers, in street clothes due to an injury, has a laugh on the bench during the game against the Denver Nuggets at Staples Center on April 13, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. The Lakers won 103-97.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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In a dream world, the ideal road for the Lakers this postseason includes several enormous upsets of top-seeded teams in the West, with the biggest one being Oklahoma City.

In that ideal scenario, the really tough competition collapses at just the right time, allowing lower seeds to score big upsets and help pave the way for L.A. to dribble on to the NBA Finals.

The Spurs may be the No. 1 seed in the West, but they certainly are beatable.  The Lakers proved that a week ago, destroying the Spurs in San Antonio without Kobe Bryant and against a team that had well-rested stars in Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. 

The Spurs returned the favor in L.A. last night, showing the Lakers why they are the top dog in the conference.

Seeding is important but so is having a healthy team.  Though the Lakers are 4-2 with Kobe Bryant out nursing a sore shin, there is no question this team needs the Mamba to have any chance of getting to the Finals. 

Not only does Bryant lead the league in scoring (28.1), but he has the experience of bringing home five World Championships and is still the ultimate closer in the game.  His absence was felt in the embarrassing loss to San Antonio, though I am not sure his presence would have made a difference on this night. 

The Lakers are barely holding on to the three seed in the West, a half game up on the resurgent L.A. ClippersChris Paul, Blake Griffin and company have given the Lakers fits this year are making a strong case for becoming the new supreme basketball power in Southern California.    

The Lakers would love to get Dallas (4-0) or Denver (3-1) in the first round, which they probably will if the Lakers finish at the three spot.  If they were to drop to fourth, chances are they would meet Memphis in the first round and that could prove dangerous.

The Grizzlies are coming on of late and beat L.A. at Staples Center in their last meeting March 25—seven Grizzlies scored in double figures in that 102-96 victory.  Zack Randolph, Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol, O.J. Mayo and Mike Conley gave the Lakers all they can handle.

But it's the Oklahoma City Thunder who present the biggest roadblock for Mike Brown's club.  They are deep, have the league's top bench player in James Harden and can just kill you with their speed, athleticism and run-and-gun mentality.  If the Lakers get to the Western Conference Finals, they'll probably meet up with the Thunder.    

This is the one team that has toyed with the Lakers this year, winning by 15 in Oklahoma City and nine in Los Angeles.  In that second loss, former UCLA Bruin and Long Beach native Russell Westbrook scorched the home team for 36 points, including a crowd-silencing, long-distance three pointer at the buzzer to end the third quarter and a number of drives to the hoop up, over and around the Lakers big men.

The Road to Redemption, as the marketing minds of ESPN Radio are calling it, is never an easy one.  Of course, you would love to see other favorites upset and knocked out but, truthfully, the Lakers just need to play their game and the rest will take care of itself.

Unlike this hectic, shortened regular season, the playoffs will have no back-to-back games, which bodes well for a veteran team like the Lakers.  Postseason games also tend to slow down a bit and take on a half-court mentality, another plus for Mike Brown's troops who suffer at the hands of quick teams like the Thunder.

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 17:  Andrew Bynum #17 of the Los Angeles Lakers drives on Tiago Splitter #22 of the San Antonio Spurs during the game at Staples Center on April 17, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and ag
Harry How/Getty Images

Momentum is everything in the NBA, and the Lakers seem to have some as they play their final four regular season games against Golden State, San Antonio, OKC and Sacramento.  

L.A. is starting to find a rhythm—even after their beatdown at the hands of the Spurs.  They now have legitimate scoring threats in not just Kobe, but from Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, Ramon Sessions, Matt Barnes and Metta World Peace. 

One last very important statistic to keep in mind: An in depth look at crunch time (meaning, games with a five points or less differential in the last five minutes) done by Trevor Ebaugh of ESPN Stats & Info and reported by True Hoops blogger Henry Abbott revealed that the Los Angeles Lakers are the league's best when the game is on the line.

"The Lakers have by far the best crunch time plus/minus this season (plus-79, the Pacers are second at plus-65). Pau Gasol (plus-78) has been their biggest individual star, followed closely by Andrew Bynum (plus-74). Kobe Bryant ranks third at plus-58. The Lakers achieved this number with the NBA's second-best clutch offense (behind the Magic) and the eighth-best defense."

The playoffs are all about crunch time.  If this team plays to its strengths—owning the post, moving the ball for good looks, playing tight defense and playing with passion—there's no limit to how far down the road the Lakers can go.