The San Antonio Spurs travel to the Staples Center on Sunday to take on a Los Angeles Lakers team still barely clinging on to the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. But for the first time all season, the Lakers' quest for a postseason appearance no longer feels all that important.
By now, everybody in Los Angeles has spent their past half-day voraciously reading every update on the status of Kobe Bryant. The Lakers guard was injured late in the 118-116 win over the Golden State Warriors on Friday, and by all accounts the prognosis is season-ending and may alter the 2013-14 campaign as well.
According to Mike Trudell of Lakers.com, the team fears Bryant has suffered a torn Achilles tendon:
The Lakers believe Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles. He will have an MRI tomorrow to confirm.— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) April 13, 2013
It's a fear Bryant all but confirmed after the game, per the team's official Twitter feed:
An emotional Kobe: "I made a move I've made a million times, and (the Achilles) just popped."— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) April 13, 2013
With two games remaining in the regular season for the Lakers, it goes without saying this injury is devastating. Bryant is not only the face of the entire franchise, but also the team's most important player by a country mile. Without him, the looming Utah Jazz are closer in the rearview mirror than ever before.
The Spurs know a little bit about surviving despite a critical injury. Sixth man Manu Ginobili has missed all but three minutes of San Antonio's past eight games with a hamstring injury. The 35-year-old guard has left the Spurs' bench somewhat listless offensively, and they are only 4-4 over the aforementioned stretch.
San Antonio's recent struggles could have implications on both teams. The Oklahoma City Thunder have opened up a half-game lead on the Spurs for the top spot in the Western Conference, and they own the head-to-head tiebreaker. With just three games remaining, the Spurs may need to capture all three to take the conference's top spot.
And with the Lakers still perched in the No. 8 spot, whichever team ultimately pulls out that top seed may face a Bryant-less Los Angeles in Round 1.
With that in mind, here is a complete breakdown of this critical Western Conference showdown.
Start Time: Sunday, April 14 at 9:30 p.m. ET
Location: Staples Center in Los Angeles
Team Records: San Antonio Spurs (58-21), Los Angeles Lakers (43-37)
TV Info: NBATV
Stream: NBA League Pass (Audio Only, Pay Service)
Spurs Injury Report (via CBS Sports)
F Boris Diaw, Back, Out
G Manu Ginobili, Knee, Out
Lakers Injury Report (via CBS Sports)
G Steve Nash, Hip/Hamstring, Questionable
F Jordan Hill, Hip, Out for Season
Kobe Bryant. Out for the season. Don't feel right.— chris palmer (@ESPNChrisPalmer) April 13, 2013
Key Storyline: Life Without Kobe
There is an ominous cloud hanging over this game, much in the same way No. 24 will someday hang over the Staples Center floor. What was originally billed as a classic battle between two Western Conference monoliths is now something different, less important as a basketball game but perhaps more intriguing from a psychological standpoint.
There is no time for a requiem for Kobe Bryant. In a season that lasts 82 games, life has to move on for everyone involved, no matter how unfortunate the circumstances. Superstars have fallen to catastrophic injuries plenty of times before, and David Stern isn't going to hit the pause button to mourn the injury of anyone—not even one of the 10 greatest players to ever live.
Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and the rest of the human MASH unit the Lakers take into Sunday's game have to move on—and quickly. They are still competing for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference with the Utah Jazz and have a one-game lead with two remaining.
Will the Lakers make the playoffs without Kobe Bryant?
Even if the postseason feels like a completely hollow accomplishment in this context, it still matters. Capturing that eighth seed is what Bryant played 40-plus minutes on a nightly basis to accomplish down the stretch, a fact that many consider a contributing factor to this injury. At the very least, Howard and Gasol should go out against San Antonio and give in-their-prime efforts to make this injury mean something.
Whether they can is another story. Neither Gasol nor Howard are exactly known as the most emotionally stable guys in the NBA, and the former's heartbreak at Bryant's injury was evident on Friday.
Gasol spoke with tears in his eyes about the Lakers' fallen leader as word came down about his likely torn Achilles.
“It’s hard for me to see him like that," Gasol said (per ESPN's Dave McMenamin). "He doesn’t deserve it … I hate that it happened to him. He works so hard. He’s the most dedicated guy that I ever met and he had the courage and the strength to talk to (the media)."
The Lakers forward would go on to speak of his admiration of Bryant, his toughness in shooting those critical free throws with a torn ACL. Kobe won't be there anymore to carry the offensive load and shoulder the burden.
Can Howard and Gasol get the job done? That remains to be seen, but it will be Broadway-level theatre to watch.
X-Factor: Pau Gasol
While losing Bryant is obviously devastating, head coach Mike D'Antoni and Co. can at least take solace in the fact that Howard won't be alone on an island offensively.
Gasol has emerged from his season-long malaise to seemingly return to his All-Star form over the past few contests. Lost in the wake of Bryant's injury on Friday was Gasol logging his sixth career triple-double, finishing with 26 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.
Though Gasol's season as a whole has been mired with turmoil due to injuries and a rapidly evolving role, he's finally started showing signs of his previous self of late. Since April 1, the 32-year-old forward is averaging 19.3 points, 10.2 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game—numbers a 27-year-old Gasol would dream about.
He's been easily the Lakers' second-best offensive player, and one could argue Howard was also thriving by taking a more tertiary role.
The root of Gasol's resurrection to top-20 NBA player can be explained the simplest way possible: He was getting way better shots and knocking down the ones he took. Gasol is shooting a career-low 47.7 percent for the season, and he's dreadful for the most part anywhere outside of five feet. According to NBA.com, Gasol is league-average or worse on all but two areas on the floor, both positioned on the right side of the basket.
Since the beginning of April, that's changed drastically. Green is good when it comes to color-coded NBA.com shot charts, and Gasol's chart looks a whole lot like St. Patrick's Day over his recent hot stretch.
Gasol has been particularly effective at knocking down jumpers at the top of the key on pick-and-pop opportunities—a staple of the traditional D'Antoni offense. He has always loved that shot, but the difference between his early-season looks and the ones of late are where they have been coming on the floor.
The difference between 12-15 feet for Gasol and 15-18 feet is huge within his game, and lately the Spaniard has been getting looks closer to his comfort zone. Here, LaMarcus Aldridge makes the slightly insane decision to overcommit on Jodie Meeks and leaves Gasol wide open at the top of the key.
An underrated side effect of Bryant's injury is what that will mean for Gasol in pick-and-pop opportunities. Kobe and Pau had seemingly recaptured their 2009-10 rhythm in those sets over the past few games, and it's been a joy to watch—even when Gasol had to bail his good buddy out.
Here is a particular play that Lakers fans came to know and love down the stretch, with Bryant wasting all but the last fractions of the shot clock before drawing the double team and making a sweet dish to Gasol.
For all of the talk of Bryant's "unselfish" play the past few months, that play was how many of No. 24's assists came to be. He would purposely dribble the ball deep into the shot clock—sometimes approaching a J.R. Smith-level infatuation with the pitter-patter of the ball against the floor—before a help defender finally came over and Bryant could make a last-second pass.
Those looks are gone now. No one in Los Angeles has the respect of NBA defenses enough to draw double teams—and that includes the injured Steve Nash.
San Antonio is only mediocre at stopping pick-and-rolls, ranking 12th when the roll man finishes, per Synergy Sports. But with Bryant out, the focus of the defense shifts drastically—a fact that may strike the fatal blow for Gasol's recent resurgence.
Key Matchup: Tony Parker vs. Lakers' Pick-and-Roll Defense
One facet of the game where Bryant's presence won't be nearly as missed is defensively. The 34-year-old Bryant's offensive burden was so heavy that he became a massive liability on that end this season, cheating in gaps and not always giving requisite effort in transition.
It's part of the reason the Lakers remain one of the league's worst defensive teams in pick-and-roll opportunities. According to Synergy Sports, Los Angeles ranks 22nd in the league at 0.82 points per possession allowed when a pick-and-roll ball handler finishes a possession. ("Finishing" a possession means a set ending in a field-goal attempt, turnover or free throws based on Synergy's stat module.)
That makes the Lakers easy pickings for Tony Parker, who just so happens to be one of the league's finest pick-and-roll players. The MVP candidate is averaging 0.96 points per possession when finishing a pick-and-roll set this season, the 10th-best rate in the league, per Synergy.
Certainly, that's unsurprising to anyone who watches Parker play. In the teams' January meeting, Parker scored five baskets against the Lakers after taking a pick, accounting for half of his baskets on the night.
Parker burns Darius Morris on the play above as he did many times in that meeting. Morris has spent most of his time of late in the D-League and should play a minimal role on Sunday, but it's not like the Lakers have a stable of top defenders awaiting Parker.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, Morris is actually a better defender than the man who will be guarding Parker on Sunday, Steve Blake. Not the quickest player or the most aware defender in the world, here is a typical look at how Blake defends pick-and-rolls against elite guards:
Working in semi-transition in the video above, Blazers guard Damian Lillard takes full advantage of a flat-footed Blake. Those are the types of player where Parker thrives, running when the defense is least expecting it and finding an open jumper or floater in the lane.
This should work especially well for San Antonio on Sunday should the Spurs run plays through Gasol's man, as the Lakers forward is too slow-footed to cover Parker. Any time Gasol and Blake are on the floor together, watch for the Spurs to speed up their pace a little bit in hopes of creating a Portland-like look.
Projected Starting Lineups
PG: Steve Blake
SG: Jodie Meeks
SF: Metta World Peace
PF: Pau Gasol
C: Dwight Howard
PG: Tony Parker
SG: Danny Green
SF: Kawhi Leonard
PF: Tim Duncan
C: Tiago Splitter
As mentioned earlier in this space, it's hard to have any concrete predictive thoughts without knowing the Lakers' mental state. They could go out and win one for their injured comrade, much in the same way Louisville captured the national title after Kevin Ware's gruesome injury.
Or this could be the straw that finally breaks the Lakers' back. This team has been hanging on such a precarious balance beam all season, teetering on the brink of implosion almost since the 2012-13 season tipped off. Kobe has been the only constant throughout this whole mess, and now that he's gone it's hard to know what's left.
At least for Sunday, smart money is on the latter scenario playing out. Not just because Bryant being out of the lineup is a shell shock, but also because the Spurs are one of the NBA's three best teams. San Antonio should be able to shred the Lakers' perimeter defense on pick-and-roll plays, and Bryant won't be there to take Parker on down the stretch if needed.
This game being held at the Staples Center is cause for some necessary concern. The purple and gold will be out in full force to support Bryant on Sunday, and that should lead to one of the best crowds of the entire season.
But there just comes a time where even the greatest soldiers have to hand in their fatigues.
Score Prediction: Spurs 98, Lakers 92