Everything won't be peaches and cream for the Los Angeles Lakers heading down the stretch.
With the last days of the 2012-13 season finally upon us, the Los Angeles Lakers have their work cut out for them as they fight for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Most of the drama that enveloped the Lakers at the beginning of the year no longer matters: The team has adjusted to head coach Mike D'Antoni's system, Dwight Howard now appears to be comfortable as a No. 2 option, and Kobe Bryant knows when he needs to facilitate and when he needs to take over.
Even so, as the Lakers chase the Utah Jazz in the standings, there is no shortage of storylines in Hollywood. Bryant is still the central figure in the movie, but the rest of his supporting cast also has a number of harsh realities that they need to face as a possible postseason berth lingers on the horizon.
If L.A. makes the playoffs, they'll be entering the postseason with an extremely tired Kobe Bryant. The Lakers' shooting guard has played 42-plus minutes in each of the past four games, and it's highly unlikely that his on-court time will decrease down the stretch.
As we saw against the Los Angeles Clippers on April 7, Bryant expends so much energy keeping his team in games that he rarely has much left down the stretch. But the Lakers' offense is totally different without Bryant as its focal point, so the "Black Mamba" will have to leave it all out on the floor during the team's playoff push.
"He's just playing a lot of minutes," said Lakers' forward Pau Gasol in an interview with Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com. "But he's the best at making plays down the stretch."
Without Steve Nash at their disposal recently, the Lakers have had to rely on Kobe Bryant to handle most of the playmaking duties. And while that isn't a bad thing on the surface—the Lakers are 8-3 this season when Bryant tallies 10 assists or more—it also happens to be a drastic change to Mike D'Antoni's offensive philosophy.
A Nash-Bryant backcourt gives the Lakers the option to play either of them off the ball in any given set, thus making life that much more difficult for opposing defenses. But if Nash's balky hip causes him to be at anything less than full strength over the final few games, L.A. can only hope that Steve Blake can step up and fill the void.
Dwight Howard is the best center in the NBA, but his lack of consistency may ultimately prevent the Lakers from doing much of anything in the playoffs.
After scoring a total of 48 points in recent wins versus the Sacramento Kings and Dallas Mavericks, Howard scored just nine points against the Memphis Grizzlies on April 5. And in the most important game of the year for the Lakers, Howard grabbed a mere four rebounds in 39 minutes against the Los Angeles Clippers on April 7.
Kobe Bryant, his 25-plus points and outstanding defense are all known quantities—if the Lakers could count on a consistent 18 points and 12 rebounds out of Howard, they would have little trouble locking down the No. 8 seed out West.
The Utah Jazz hold the head-to-head tiebreaker with Los Angeles, so the Lakers need to approach every game as a must-win contest.
Fortunately, their next two opponents—New Orleans and Portland—have nothing but pride to play for, and their final three games—against Golden State, San Antonio and Houston—are all at the Staples Center.
Even so, the Lakers can't afford to take a night off. While their mindset should be to take one game at a time, they may need to run the table in order to make the postseason a reality.
The strain of having to carry the team on his back may be taking more than a physical toll on Bryant, who recently hinted that his teammates could do more.
"We normally do a much better job on the glass," said Bryant after the Lakers' 109-95 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on April 7. That was likely a thinly veiled shot at Dwight Howard, who pulled down just four rebounds in 39 minutes.
In the grand scheme of things, it probably isn't much; Bryant has been much more direct with his criticism at various times earlier this season. But a subtle jab combined with the stress of a late-season playoff push may create a very uncomfortable atmosphere in the locker room going forward.