For the Los Angeles Lakers to have any real chance of riding deep into the playoffs this spring, they'll need that "back-to-the-wall" energy they've showed in must-have wins over Sacramento, Dallas and Memphis this week.
They also could use some fresh legs. Although they gutted out another fine defensive effort in defeating the red-hot Grizzlies, 86-84, Friday night, Kobe Bryant and six other Lakers who played all walked into the locker room after the game spent.
The Lakers certainly have the stars, they just haven't been aligned for much of the season. An abundance of injuries, two head coaching changes, the loss of their beloved owner and a shaky semblance of team chemistry drove the Lakers into such a deep hole that just making the playoffs seemed like a major stretch for the purple and gold.
But, since falling to 17-25 in January after a blowout loss in Memphis, the Lakers are 23-11 and playing their best basketball of the season. The question now is: will this team have the wherewithal and energy to compete in the postseason?
With six huge games left in the regular season, starting with an "away" game at Staples Center Sunday against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Lakers find themselves precariously holding on to the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference.
Could the Lakers be turning on that proverbial switch as they have for so many seasons?
Is it ludicrous to even ponder the possibilities of Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol making a deep run in this year's title chase?
Nothing is outside the realm of possibility. Much depends on how hot a team is playing when the playoffs start. The Lakers need only look at what their Staples Center neighbors on ice did in last year's Stanley Cup run.
The Los Angeles Kings were en eighth seed when they managed to sneak into the postseason at the 11th hour, got very hot very quickly and skated their way to the franchise's first championship in history.
The Lakers are warm at the moment. Hot would be the Miami Heat. But, where there's smoke, there could be fire, with the Lakers finally coming together as a cohesive unit that maximizes the best efforts of its star and role players.
A blueprint for the Lakers to make some playoff noise in 2013 means virtually everything must go right and every player contribute.
The slower pace of the playoffs is ideal for a team like the Lakers
Unlike the regular season, when teams are forced to fly all over the country and play a number of back-to-back games, the playoffs offer a more sane schedule that includes off days between games. That bodes well for the Lakers.
This is a team that's old and depleted by injuries. Only seven players saw action Friday against Memphis. Kobe Bryant has played 48, 48 and 42 minutes the past three games and could barely stand up during a postgame interview with Time Warner Cable Sports reporter Mike Trudell.
Steve Nash (hip and back) and Metta World Peace (torn miniscus) are missing-in-action with injuries and Pau Gasol is just now back from his injury that sidelined him for about six weeks.
MWP thinks he'll be back for the playoffs, but most think that's being optimistic.
Metta World Peace @MettaWorldPeace
My doctor said he was surprised how good me knee looks. He said for 14yrs of playing my knees are in great shape. The rehab is going great.4/3/2013, 12:01:04 AM
Lakers need Kobe Bryant, the facilitator
Kobe Bryant understands what the Lakers need to do to make a run. The fact that the 17-year veteran played virtually every minute of the Kings and Mavericks games and sat just six of the Memphis win Friday night served as an inspiration for the rest of the team.
Bryant also understands that his role must be that of floor leader who is able to effectively integrate his teammates with smart passes, rebounds and high percentage scoring. In the two wins over Sacramento and Dallas, Bryant averaged 21 points, 12 rebounds, 12.5 assists and three steals.
Friday night against Memphis, Bryant had nine assists while scoring 24 points and grabbing five rebounds. He's doing a bit of everything to help the Lakers advance.
The scoring numbers for Bryant are down slightly of late, but other aspects of his game have increased, turning him from being a one-dimensional scoring machine into the facilitator who excels on the defensive end of the ball and gets his teammates involved.
That style of play is a blueprint for success. With or without Steve Nash on the court, Bryant must score, pass and play defense for the Lakers to make any sort of noise in the playoffs.
A healthy, focused Dwight Howard
Dwight Howard was a one-man wrecking crew against the Sacramento Kings, scoring 24 points on 71 percent shooting. He also pulled down 15 rebounds and had five blocked shots.
Howard followed up that performance with another at home against the Mavs, scoring 24 points on 58 percent shooting, along with 12 boards. More importantly, Howard was effective late in the game, making free throws down the stretch as the Mavericks went into a "Hack-a-Howard" defense.
Against the Grizzlies, Howard had nine points, 10 rebounds and four turnovers. He played while in foul trouble and for the Lakers to have any chance of competing in the postseason, he will need better numbers than these.
For Los Angeles to win, D12 must dominate in the paint, alter the opposition on defense, stay engaged, stay out of foul trouble and make at least 50 percent of his free throws.
Pau Gasol playing in the post
Whether Mike D'Antoni likes it or not, Pau Gasol is much more effective when he is able to play down in the blocks. That's been obvious in the team's three recent victories.
Since returning from a foot injury, Gasol has been rounding back into shape, looking stronger with every game.
His best game was his last one—Friday's two-point win over Memphis. Playing in the low post and often acting as facilitator, Gasol managed to score 19 points and had three assists and nine rebounds.
A healthy Pau Gasol playing in the post and with confidence could turn into one of the key elements to any sort of Lakers run in 2013. He has quickly gone from the dog house to the penthouse—let's see if that continues.
Consistent bench play
The Lakers' bench is thin at the moment because MWP and Nash have been injured, and that's meant starter's minutes for guard Jody Meeks and forward Earl Clark.
For Los Angeles to make a run in the playoffs, the team will need to field as many healthy players as possible and stick with an eight- or nine-man rotation.
Clark seems to have rediscovered his shot and confidence, as evidenced by his breakthrough performance against Memphis. He had 13 points and five big rebounds in helping the Lakers to an 86-84 win.
"I don't want to be on the Laker team that didn't make the playoffs," said Clark (via ESPNLA.com), the first-year Lakers forward who had a second straight standout game. "I don't want to be remembered that way, so I'm just coming out and giving it my all."