With Kobe Bryant out, Pau Gasol must pick up the offensive slack for the Lakers in the postseason.
Welcome to the complete guide to the Los Angeles Lakers' postseason. Here you'll find everything you need to know about the Purple and Gold's quest for an improbable 17th title.
What a finishing kick for the Lakers.
Los Angeles won their last five games and eight of their final nine to not just clinch a playoff berth, but jump up to the seventh seed in the West and attain a more favorable first-round matchup with the San Antonio Spurs.
That's the good news.
The bad news is they will be without Kobe Bryant for the rest of the season and Steve Nash's return is still shrouded in mystery.
So how long can this—dare I say, Cinderella—run last?
Let's break it down step-by-step.
Unless you've been living under a rock for the past three months, you're well versed in the Lakers' tale.
It took a massive mid-season turnaround, but L.A. was able to overcome all the injuries and turmoil and dig themselves out of a 17-25 hole to make the playoffs.
They were led mostly by Kobe Bryant, whose revamped game at age 34 was incredible to behold.
Others stepped up throughout the course of the season as well, though.
Earl Clark's revelation as an able rotation player was the first spark. Antawn Jamison became a reliable scorer off the bench and Steve Blake finally played like the guy everyone thought the Lakers signed in the summer of 2010.
Dwight Howard steadily regained his old defensive prowess and Pau Gasol looked like a man reborn over the final week of the campaign.
The million-dollar question is whether all that momentum will carry over to the postseason.
Optimism is understandably sky-high in Laker Land right now.
The team played .700 ball over the final 40 games of the season, roughly the same winning percentage the 57-win Denver Nuggets posted overall.
Does that mean the Lakers should be regarded as dark horse title contenders like the Nuggets?
If Kobe Bryant was on the floor, you might dare to dream.
Without him, though, not a chance.
As badly as the Lakers and their fans wanted to draw the San Antonio Spurs in Round 1, advancing to the next series would still be a huge upset.
Let's not forget that the Spurs spent most of the season at the top of the standings. Last year's conference finalists are a better team this year, with only health concerns clouding their prospects.
With the depth of top-shelf talent in the West and no Bryant to counter, reaching the finals is out of the question.
Pushing the Spurs in the first round with a puncher's chance of an upset will be L.A.'s realistic postseason ceiling.
With Kobe Bryant definitely out of the lineup, the only player who can still push the Lakers to another level is Steve Nash.
In the absence of the Lakers' starting backcourt, L.A. trots out arguably the worst crop of guards of any team in the league.
Steve Blake has been great down the stretch, but what's "great" for Steve Blake is barely average for a starting NBA point guard.
Jodie Meeks is essentially useless if his threes aren't falling and Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock are basically D-Leaguers who wouldn't make the active roster for your average playoff team.
As we've witnessed over the past two games sans Nash and Bryant, the Lakers' offense has turned to mush, generating one agonizing possession after another.
In the season finale, L.A. couldn't even get to 100 points against a defensively-challenged Houston Rockets team that gave up 119 to the offensively-inert Phoenix Suns (next-to-last in offensive efficiency for the year) in their previous game. Not even with five extra minutes of overtime!
The Lakers couldn't muster 37 percent shooting from the field in either of their final two games and no one had any idea what to do with the ball down the stretch.
Adding Nash would bring sorely needed offensive direction and introduce a guard capable of creating shots for others.
His marks of 50 percent shooting from the field and 44 percent from three would be a welcome addition to the offense as well.
The Spurs won the season series with the Lakers 2-1, but the overall scoring margin was a dead heat.
More importantly, the Lakers just defeated San Antonio last weekend and did so in their current state, i.e. without Kobe Bryant.
It may seem like the Spurs, losers of seven of their last 10, wilted down the stretch but head coach Gregg Popovich is wise enough to value the health of his team over their playoff seed.
Here are the relevant numbers for the season:
Offensive Efficiency: Lakers - 8th, Spurs - 7th
Defensive Efficiency: Lakers - T-18th, Spurs - T-3rd
Effective Field Goal Percentage: Lakers - 9th, Spurs - 2nd
Rebound Rate: Lakers - T-8th, Spurs - 19th
Assist Rate: Lakers - T-18th, Spurs - 1st
Turnover Rate: Lakers - T-16th, Spurs - T-16th
Free-Throw Percentage: Lakers - 30th, Spurs - 3rd
As you can see, the Spurs have the edge in just about everything except rebounding. But if you break rebounds down further into the offensive and defensive varieties, you find that the Spurs covet defensive boards and are actually tied for third in the league in defensive rebound rate, better than the Lakers' rank of 10th in that category.
I included the free-throw percentage category to highlight the danger faced by the Lakers should the game come down to crucial freebies in crunch time.
The discrepancy in free-throw accuracy is exaggerated even more when you factor in the absences of Bryant and Nash. L.A.'s top two foul shooters in their absence, Jodie Meeks and Steve Blake, combined to attempt just 118 free-throws on the season heading into the finale.
Dwight Howard attempted about one-third of that number in a single game.
The numbers may predict an easy Spurs conquest, but savvy basketball aficionados know that the playoffs are all about the matchups.
Dwight Howard/Pau Gasol vs. Tim Duncan/Spurs Big Man X
So far this season, the frontcourt pairing of Howard and Gasol has been outscored on a per possession basis, according to NBA.com, but the only advantage the Lakers now hold over the Spurs is their size.
San Antonio's roster is deep, but mostly with wings and guards. Other than Tim Duncan, they have no one who can really match up with either Gasol or Howard.
This is where the Lakers must press their advantage. Without Bryant, the Lakers would be wise to play through Gasol, who averaged 19 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists over his last five contests and posted two triple-doubles in the season's final three games.
That will put the onus on Gregg Popovich and the Spurs as to how to counter. If Duncan draws Gasol, then Dwight Howard will have an enormous strength advantage over San Antonio's other starting big, Tiago Splitter.
If Popovich decides to play smaller and force L.A.'s hand by playing Matt Bonner or even Kawhi Leonard at the 4, either Gasol or Howard will draw an uncomfortable defensive assignment on the perimeter that could cause problems.
However, there's no way those smaller Spurs could be able to contain the Lakers' twin towers on the other end. If Gasol in particular gets such a favorable matchup, L.A. should exploit it until San Antonio is forced to adapt.
The presence of Boris Diaw would have made things much more interesting, but he is expected to be out for a few more weeks.
If the Lakers want to surprise the Spurs in Round 1, the Howard/Gasol combo must dominate the paint for the entire series.
In order to stay with the Spurs, the Lakers must slow down and muck up the game as much as possible, winning with tough defense and a significant edge in rebounding.
On offense they'll look to go inside-out, relying heavily on Pau Gasol as both a scorer and facilitator. If Steve Nash makes his return, expect a steady diet of pick-and-rolls (reminiscent of his heyday in Phoenix) to generate deep probes into the paint and open up shooters dotted around the arc.
It's imperative that those outside shooters are on point. San Antonio will crash the paint to cut off Nash's penetration and look to double Gasol when he gets deep post position. It's on the Lakers waiting on the perimeter to swing the ball and make open shots when the inevitable kick-outs come.
If Dwight Howard can be a factor on the block and draw the defense's attention, it will open up more space for the Lakers' offense as well.
Defensively, the Lakers have to commit to rotating, closing out hard on shooters and making multiple efforts on every single possession.
The Spurs move the ball better than any team in the league, spacing out the court and then zipping the ball around to bend the defense to its will and find the perfect shot.
Containing Tony Parker is easier said than done and if Manu Ginobili has anything left in the tank he can push San Antonio's offense to another level.
As long as the Lakers play defense the way the have the last couple games of the season (including in that win over the Spurs), they will give themselves a chance to steal this series.
Game 1: Sun., April 21 L.A. Lakers at San Antonio 3:30 PM ET
Hard-fought win for the Spurs.
Game 2: Wed., April 24 L.A. Lakers at San Antonio 9:30 PM ET
Hard-fought win for the Spurs.
Game 3: Fri., April 26 San Antonio at L.A. Lakers 10:30 PM ET
Hard-fought win for the Lakers.
Game 4: Sun., April 28 San Antonio at L.A. Lakers 7:00 PM ET
Hard-fought win for the Lakers.
Game 5*: Tue., April 30 L.A. Lakers at San Antonio TBD
Blowout win for the Spurs.
Game 6*: Thu., May 2 San Antonio at L.A. Lakers TBD
Hard-fought win for the Spurs.
Game 7*: Sat., May 4 L.A. Lakers at San Antonio TBD
* = if necessary
The Lakers push the Spurs almost to the limit, but in the end fall valiantly in six games to end their roller coaster of a season.