The Los Angeles Lakers found their way into the postseason—as the No. 7 seed no less.
C’mon, was there ever any doubt?
There is little evidence to go off between these two teams, as previous meetings offered far different lineups for each team due to injury. The Lakers lost two of three this season to the Spurs, and the recent win was against a talent-stripped Spurs roster.
On paper, the matchup favors the Spurs.
This Hollywood script can still unfold in magical fashion. The Lakers, by adhering to this blueprint, can win...
If Dwight Howard makes Magic
The Lakers will only go as far as Dwight Howard takes them. It all rests on the mammoth shoulders of the league’s top center.
Howard, against the common misconception that he’s a big-moment flop, has been an incredible performer in the playoffs.
He shot 63 percent on 13.5 field-goal attempts per game in that series, and through five postseasons, Howard has shot 60 percent for 19.9 points and has averaged 14.4 rebounds.
The guy is no slouch.
So with Bryant out, the Lakers will need for Howard to regain this—pun alert—magic.
Howard's early-season back injuries derailed his start with the Lakers. But since the All-Star break, Howard has come on strong. He's averaging 18.4 points on 58.6 percent shooting and 13.4 rebounds. He's also showing much greater spring to the ball defensively.
The Lakers need to get him the ball early and often in the playoffs.
And if Howard hits from the free-throw line
In wins this season, Howard is shooting the ball 11.8 times compared to just 9.2 attempts per game in losses. Howard averages 19.3 points in wins and just 14.4 points in losses.
Since postseason upset victories won’t come via blowouts, the Lakers cannot afford for Howard to miss free throws in close games.
He is shooting just 49.4 percent from the line this season, and he's taking 9.5 attempts per game. Those extra few gimme points will cost the Lakers in the postseason. The sliver of optimism surrounding his charity-line work is that he shot a season-high 55.3 percent in April.
Apparently, he has it in him.
If the old guys relive their good times
The talent has been there since the beginning. But obviously that hasn’t meant much this season.
With Bryant out, it’s not the Lakers are void of big-game potential.
Sam Amick of USA Today presented some essential reminders:
- Dwight Howard: Three-time Defensive Player of the Year, NBA Finals appearance in 2009.
- Pau Gasol: Two-time NBA champion, four-time All-Star.
- Metta World Peace: One-time NBA champion, one-time Defensive Player of the Year.
- Antawn Jamison: Two-time All-Star, 58 points from becoming the 39th to reach 20,000 for his career.
You can add two-time MVP and eight-time All-Star Steve Nash to that list even though he still has not shown he’ll be fully ready to return from nerve issues in his hip and back. Nash could be a valuable leader of the team’s second unit, but the thought of him guarding Tony Parker—or anyone for that matter—would be devastating for the Lakers defense.
Now OK, it’s understood and obvious that past accomplishments mean little in the postseason (obviously signing Tracy McGrady didn’t make the Spurs automatic favorites). Still, the play that the Lakers get out of those veterans must be at the highest level.
With the exception of Nash, due to injuries, each of those names is still plenty capable of one last stretch of success. If it’s not Nash, either Jamison or World Peace will need to be the third option or creator offensively.
The Lakers need to hit a mark of at least 55 percent in true shooting percentage. In wins, they have a 56.8 true shooting percentage, but that's just 52.6 percent in losses.
Additionally, with no Bryant, those veterans will need to lead in-game decision-making as well.
Speaking of, if Gasol still has it in him
The frontcourt of San Antonio is tough, led by perennial anchor Tim Duncan and the fresh talent of Tiago Splitter. But the Lakers frontcourt is an obvious strength and Gasol is showing signs of life.
Howard and Gasol should get 30 shots per game this postseason.
Gasol was awful in the team's first game without Kobe, a 3-of-17 performance against the Spurs on Sunday. He did gather 16 rebounds and three blocks in that game, but the Lakers will need the scoring.
In the his three games prior to San Antonio, Gasol averaged 23.67 points. In April, he is averaging 17.6 points and 11 rebounds.
The Lakers can’t go far without consistent production from Gasol. Like Howard, and every other Lakers player, the team needs even greater production without Bryant.
If they can slow the pace, and limit their opponent’s offense
The Lakers know they can’t play at a high-scoring pace without Bryant. That means slowing down each possession and working the ball through a number of second and third options.
The Spurs move the ball, top in the league in assists, and they score the fourth-most points in the NBA.
Los Angeles knows it needs to hold the Spurs to a lower scoring output, and a slower pace is part of that. This season, the Lakers' defensive rating in wins is just 97.7, and 111.1 in losses.
The Lakers have struggled defensively all season, but their defensive rating has dropped to just 103.2 in April, the second-best month of the season other than a staunch 96.9 rating in November.
If one, two or three of the other guys step up
Steve Blake picked a good time to hit a season high Wednesday night. In Bryant's absence, Blake went for 24 points and added seven rebounds and seven assists. In his 10th season, Blake isn't the type of guy a team wants to rest its hopes on.
Earl Clark, who has averaged 23.3 minutes per game this season, is the team’s X-factor. Without Bryant, Clark's minutes alongside Howard and Gasol create a size advantage in the frontcourt for the Lakers. Clark defends opposing wings and is a tremendous value on the boards, averaging 5.5 rebounds per game.
Throw Jodie Meeks into the discussion of guys who need to turn it up. He's averaged just 5.6 points on 31 percent shooting in April.
Meeks made big-moment plays in the win over the Rockets. He hit two clutch free throws with 16.9 seconds left. On the ensuing possession, he then broke up the pass before the loose ball came to Chandler Parsons, who blew all that up with a three-pointer to send the game to overtime. Meeks had a vital baseline dunk in the final minute of the win to extend the Lakers' lead and secure the win.
If they are more than just a good storyline
Howard and his teammates' performances on the floor this postseason need to be greater than Howard's performance in front of the cameras, though his quotes from this clip are a good time:
"Kobe is watching us at home, Dr. Buss is watching us up high. ... Pau, put your big-boy pants on. Dwight, hit your free throws. Jodie, hit those threes, boy."