After winning eight of their last nine games, the Los Angeles Lakers have managed to improbably flip the tragic narrative of their disappointing season into one of modest triumph.
Kobe Bryant is definitely out, and Steve Nash has been spending an awful lot of time in a three-piece suit lately, but the Lakers are the West's No. 7 seed, which means a first-round date with the San Antonio Spurs.
The two teams are intimately familiar—and it's not just because they've been Western Conference powerhouses for the better part of two decades. L.A. and San Antonio met in the second-to-last game of both teams' seasons on April 14, and that matchup provides some telling insights into how the postseason series could unfold.
Seeds: Los Angeles Lakers No. 7; San Antonio Spurs No. 2
Records: Los Angeles Lakers 45-37; San Antonio Spurs 58-24
Season series: San Antonio Spurs won 2-1
Playoff schedule: Game 1 Sunday, April 21, 3:30 p.m. ET (ABC); Game 2 Wednesday, April 27, 9:30 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 3 Friday, April 26, 10:30 p.m. ET (ESPN); Game 4 Sunday, April 28, 7 p.m. (TNT); Game 5 Tuesday, April 30, TBD; Game 6 Thursday, May 2, TBD; Game 7 Saturday, May 4, TBD
What Everybody's Talking About: Lakers' Bigs
Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard are themselves again.
After bumbling through the season without a clear idea of how to simultaneously utilize his frontcourt duo, Mike D'Antoni had no choice but to toss Gasol and Howard out there together after Kobe Bryant's ruptured Achilles reshaped L.A.'s roster.
Fortunately, Gasol had already been showing signs of rejuvenation in April, as his numbers began to resemble those of the dominant, highly skilled player he once was. His averages in the season's final month included 17.5 points, 12.1 rebounds and 6.6 assists, and he put an exclamation point on his return to form by posting a beastly triple-double against the Rockets in the Lakers' final game.
At the same time, Howard has been a monster in his own right. After laying 26 points and 17 rebounds on the Spurs, he put up 16 points, 18 boards and four blocks against the Rockets.
Even more importantly, the pair seem to have found a little chemistry lately. Much of that is due to Gasol's unselfish recognition that it is now his job to keep the Lakers center happy and engaged, but that's something the deferential Gasol is more than happy to do.
What Everybody's Talking About, Part II: Injuries All Around
Health is at the top of the list of keys for both the Spurs and the Lakers. But there's a key difference: L.A. is already living out its worst-case scenario. Bryant is down, and Nash is severely hobbled and may not play.
Yet the Lakers have looked good of late.
San Antonio, on the other hand, lost seven of its final 10 games and has a backcourt duo in Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili that is miles away from 100 percent.
The Spurs are a brilliantly run team with a system that helps mitigate injuries to its top players. But that system can only be expected to function for so long when its key components are damaged. Right now, Parker is clearly struggling, as his April averages of 13.6 points on just 39.7 percent shooting can attest.
And Ginobili's hamstring has him looking like he's glued to the floor.
L.A. has already hit its injury "rock bottom," and it has rebounded nicely. The Spurs may yet have further to fall.
What Nobody's Talking About: The Kobe Effect
It stood to reason that the Lakers would be a better defensive team without Kobe Bryant on the floor. After all, the numbers were irrefutable in their condemnation of Bryant's defensive efforts.
According to 82games.com, the Lakers gave up 104.9 points per 100 possessions when Bryant was on the bench this year. But when he was on the floor, L.A. surrendered 108.1. That's a significant disparity, and it's indicative of just how disengaged Bryant had been on D.
The Lakers' improved stopping power without No. 24 is no shock. But what has been surprising is how much better the team's offense has looked without Bryant's possession-dominating presence on the floor.
The Lakers operate from the inside out now, with Gasol serving as the club's facilitator and Howard seeing ample touches on the block—often of the highlight variety.
Hell, even Steve Blake has enjoyed his newfound freedom, scoring 47 points over L.A.'s final two games.
Bryant put on an incredible performance all season long, defying age and registering numbers that rivaled (and in some cases, exceeded) the most impressive ones of his career. But there's no denying that the Lakers are functioning better on both ends without him.
(Consider this the obligatory "small sample size" disclaimer to the section above.)
The Spurs own a 2-1 series lead, but the overall margins have been so slim in their two victories that it's hard to put much stock in the teams' meetings this year.
On Nov. 13, San Antonio notched an 84-82 win over a Lakers team that featured a still-recovering Howard and a clearly hobbled Gasol. Only a late three-point shot from Danny Green swung that contest in the Spurs' favor.
Then, on Jan. 9, the Spurs won a 108-105 matchup that featured neither Gasol nor Howard as both big men sat out with injuries.
And we all know what happened in the latest tilt, with the Lakers taking a 91-86 decision on April 14.
The Spurs own the technical title of "Season Series Winners," for whatever that's worth, but L.A. could very easily have been in possession of a 3-0 record against San Antonio this season.
Key Matchup: Mike D'Antoni vs. Gregg Popovich
Sure, it'd make sense to highlight Tim Duncan and Howard here. This series could turn on which big man controls the lane and cleans the glass most effectively.
Or perhaps Parker deserves a nod, as the Lakers have always struggled to contain the penetration of quick point guards.
But no, this series' biggest matchup is between the two men calling the shots—and it strongly favors the one on the Spurs' bench.
Nobody prepares his team better, makes shrewder in-game adjustments or exploits opponents' weaknesses better than Gregg Popovich does. San Antonio may be suffering from injuries at the wrong time, and the Lakers may have all the momentum, but Popovich and his system seem capable of handling anything.
D'Antoni, on the other hand, seems to have stumbled on his club's optimal style by default. He hasn't shown any acumen this season in any of the key areas a playoff coach needs. His schemes haven't fit his personnel, his defensive tactics don't exist and his capability as a motivator is highly suspect.
This series is far more even than the seeding would indicate, and the Spurs could be vulnerable to a surging Lakers team that seems to have found its identity over the past week.
But the steady hand of Popovich could very well be the reason San Antonio overcomes its late-season struggles to defeat a Lakers team that spent the year as a leaderless, disorganized mess.