There is no question that the Los Angeles Lakers face an uphill climb when it comes to doing damage in the playoffs without superstar Kobe Bryant, who is out for the remainder of the season with a torn Achilles. Before the Lakers can focus on that, however, they must first qualify for the postseason.
Los Angeles will have a chance to do precisely that when it faces the Houston Rockets on Wednesday. Should the Lakers win, they will clinch the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference. If they lose and the Utah Jazz lose as well, then they will clinch the No. 8 seed. Should Los Angeles lose and Utah win, however, the Lakers will miss the playoffs completely.
There is no question that beating the Rockets is the easiest route for the Lakers at this point, so that will obviously be their main focus. With Bryant on the shelf, here are three role players who must step up in order for L.A. to qualify for the postseason.
Which role player is the biggest key to the Lakers advancing to the playoffs?
While big men Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol will have to carry the load for the most part against Houston and in the playoffs should the Lakers make it, a guard will have to step up and make up for some of what was lost when Bryant went down.
There isn't a player on the roster who can replace Kobe. In fact, there may not be a player in the entire league who can replace Kobe, but Steve Blake has filled in admirably thus far.
Head coach Mike D'Antoni leaned heavily on Blake against the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday, and he delivered. In 31 minutes of play, Blake dropped 23 points, grabbed five rebounds and dished out four assists. He's no Kobe, but it was a Bryant-esque performance as he filled up the stat sheet and gave the Lakers some semblance of an outside presence.
Perhaps the true test for Blake against the Rockets will be his defensive acumen, however. Blake will likely be tasked with handling opposing point guard Jeremy Lin, who has had a nice string of success late in the season. Lin is a much more explosive player than Blake, so Blake will have to use his positioning and smarts to his advantage. If he can do that, then the Lakers will be in great shape.
With Howard, Gasol and Metta World Peace comprising the Lakers' front line, it may seem like there isn't a lot of room for Antawn Jamison. All three of them need to rest periodically throughout the game, though, and Jamison is the first choice off the bench.
Jamison is only producing half of his career average in terms of points per game this season as he is averaging over nine points per contest, but his importance has grown in the absence of Bryant.
Like Blake, Jamison was great against the Spurs as he helped shoulder some of the scoring load. Jamison netted 15 points in 25 minutes off the bench and he connected on three of his five attempts from downtown. Kobe is such a complete player that it's difficult to pinpoint one area in which he'll be missed the most, but his outside shooting ability may very well be at the top of the list.
Jamison plays a different position than Bryant, but he is nearly as good from long range and really gives Los Angeles a different dimension. In a lot of ways, Jamison is an ideal fit for D'Antoni's offense as he allows the Lakers to stretch the floor and clear out the lane for someone like Howard. Even if Jamison doesn't have a great game against the Rockets, he needs to at least seem like a threat from beyond the arc.
Nobody really considers Jodie Meeks to be Bryant's replacement per se, but he is the guy who is stepping in to start at shooting guard in the Black Mamba's place. Because of that, there is a lot of pressure on him to increase his production in Kobe's absence. Meeks can be a valuable commodity off the bench due to his shooting range, but he has yet to show that he can be a difference maker while playing more minutes.
Meeks was actually second on the team with 36 minutes played against the Spurs on Sunday, but he only converted three of his 11 attempts from the field for eight points.
At the same time, he was solid defensively and didn't hurt the Lakers while he was on the floor, so there is reason for optimism. Meeks is a streaky shooter who can do some special things when he gets on a roll, and that is what Laker fans are looking for.
Since the Lakers have their interior game on lock down with Howard and Gasol, Meeks has to be a perimeter presence like Blake and Jamison. As long as he keeps the Rockets honest on Wednesday night, he'll open things up for everyone else. If he goes on one of his signature hot streaks, however, Houston could have a major problem on its hands.
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