The 2012-13 regular season was a tumultuous one for the Los Angeles Lakers, but they have somehow managed to make the playoffs as the No. 7 seed. The Lakers will take on the San Antonio Spurs in the first round and certainly have an uphill battle, but upsets aren't that uncommon in the NBA postseason.
Los Angeles is facing a great deal of adversity with Kobe Bryant out for the season due to a torn Achilles, but the team managed to come together in its final games without him. There is no doubt that the Lakers are a better team with a legend like Kobe in the fold, but they will have to soldier on without him.
The Spurs are heavily favored to advance past the Lakers in the first round; however, an L.A. victory isn't out of the question. Here are the three biggest keys to the Lakers shocking San Antonio in the first round.
Dwight Howard Must Be a Superstar
When Bryant was in the lineup, it was obvious that he was the go-to guy as everyone, including center Dwight Howard, deferred to him. Now that Kobe is out, team basketball is of the utmost importance, but somebody still needs to step up and take charge. Howard has been criticized for an inability or unwillingness to do that over the years, but now is the time for him to prove his worth as a leader.
Howard has had an up-and-down season, but he really came on late in the season and was a big reason why Los Angeles was able to win the two games following Bryant's injury. Howard was a monster against the Spurs as he dropped 26 points and nabbed 17 rebounds, and he took charge against the Houston Rockets as well with 16 points and 18 rebounds as the Lakers secured the No. 7 seed.
Despite the criticism that Howard has received, his final numbers this season were extremely impressive. Also, he has a history of leading a team through the playoffs as he took the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals in 2008-09. Repeating that feat with the Lakers will be no easy task, but Howard gives the Lakers an advantage over the Spurs in the paint and that could lead to a massive upset.
A Healthy Steve Nash Is Needed
Point guard Steve Nash missed 32 games during the regular season, including the Lakers' final eight contests. Nash isn't the same player who won back-to-back MVP Awards with the Phoenix Suns, but he is a savvy and experienced player who knows how to run head coach Mike D'Antoni's offense. Steve Blake has filled in admirably for Nash; however, the Lakers absolutely need his services in order to move past the Spurs and beyond.
According to Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports, there is growing optimism that Nash could return to the lineup for Game 1 against the Spurs on Saturday. Nash has been battling hamstring and hip injuries, but he has reportedly made progress. Every injury is significant for Nash now that he is 39 years of age. It naturally takes him longer to heal than it used to. Nash certainly realizes how important he is to L.A.'s playoff success, though, so he'll do everything in his power to suit up.
Nash's regular-season averages of 12.7 points and 6.7 assists don't blow anyone away, but he was a calming force in the backcourt for the Lakers. Also, he was extremely efficient as he hit nearly half of his shots from the field, almost 44 percent of his three-pointers and an astounding 92 percent of his free throws. Nash knows that every possession counts and that is even truer in the playoffs. Los Angeles needs a proven performer at point guard against the Spurs and Nash definitely fits the bill.
Contributions Throughout the Lineup
As important as it is for individual stars such as Howard, Nash and Pau Gasol to step up and play great in order for the Lakers to beat the Spurs, Los Angeles needs essentially everyone on the roster to play a role. The Lakers made some depth additions this offseason such as Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks, and while they weren't talked about much due to the acquisitions of Howard and Nash, they are now integral pieces to the puzzle if L.A. is going to get past San Antonio.
The Lakers have dug a bit deeper into their bench over the past couple games as Jamison, Meeks, Blake and even players like Earl Clark and Darius Morris have received increase playing time. Also, Metta World Peace has gone from a bit player to an important contributor as he is one of the most experienced players on the team. Los Angeles won its final two games of the regular season thanks to team basketball and it will need team basketball to beat the Spurs.
Perhaps no team in the entire league is deeper than the Spurs, so the Lakers can learn a lot from watching their counterparts. Guys like Howard and Gasol can dominate games for stretches, but they're eventually going to get tired or get into foul trouble, so the Lakers need to be able to count on their bench players. Those players have stepped up in recent games and they must continue their upward trend in the playoffs.
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