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Stars Have Aligned for a Lakers First-Round Upset

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Stars Have Aligned for a Lakers First-Round Upset
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Dwight Howard and the Los Angeles Lakers aren't going down without a fight to the San Antonio Spurs.

The Los Angeles Lakers are hardly a safe bet in the 2013 NBA playoffs. Their season hasn’t gone as planned, and despite being the league’s next super team, they’ve looked far more ordinary than super thus far.

That being said, their postseason hopes are alive, and they couldn’t have asked for a much better matchup than the San Antonio Spurs.

For L.A., playoff seeding wasn’t set until the final game of the 2012-13 campaign. A season-ending overtime victory gave the team seventh place, surpassing the Houston Rockets, and earning the Lakers a matchup against San Antonio.

A faceoff with the Spurs isn’t going to be a cakewalk for L.A.—let alone anyone else—but the truth is that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have presented much bigger problems in a seven-game series.

During 2012-13, L.A. faced off against the Thunder four times, winning just once. It had an impressive 105-96 victory on Jan. 27, but the other three contests resulted in three losses, all of which came by an average of more than 12.5 points per game.

Against the Spurs, the Lakers fared much better. Although they only managed to squeeze out one win in three tries—a win without Kobe Bryant, nonetheless—they never lost by more than three points.

Mike D’Antoni has more experience coaching against Gregg Popovich than he does against Scott Brooks, and that history, although not always in his favor, gives him a better idea of how to prepare for a multi-game series.

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The Lakers showed, in Game 1, that they have an advantage in the paint when they execute correctly. Against San Antonio, you can’t simply dump the ball inside and expect to dominate. Popovich’s crew is too disciplined not to rotate, and the double-teams disrupted any plans Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol had of backing down one-on-one.

Where the Lakers need to do a better job is using backdoor movement to create open looks down low. Howard has an athletic advantage against any big the Spurs throw his way, and Gasol can "out-skill" anybody not named Tim Duncan.

The bigger body of Kendrick Perkins and the shot-blocking ability of Serge Ibaka would have diminished the Lakers’ one true advantage, potentially taking away even more looks inside.

The other part of the Lakers’ execution that must change, as simple as it sounds, is in the mid-range. San Antonio was more than willing to give the Lakers’ guards looks in pick-and-roll situations. Popovich understands the advantage that L.A. has inside, and by allowing the guards to fire away, Howard and Gasol got fewer looks moving toward the rim.

Mid-range shot chart for L.A. in Game 1 (via NBA.com).

In Game 1, Los Angeles couldn’t knock down the mid-range shot with any regularity. It’s a major reason it scored just 79 points, but it’s also an area that could help nudge this series in its favor.

Despite shooting poorly in the first outing of the playoffs, this team wasn’t as bad during the regular season. If Steve Nash can get his legs back, his jumper will look better early in games, and San Antonio will have to choose whether to challenge the shot down low or up top.

Right now, that’s an easy decision to make, but a quick turnaround on L.A.’s part will change that moving forward.  

Mid-range shot chart for L.A. in 2012-13 regular season (via NBA.com).

One of the major storylines of this series is health. Bryant is out, Nash is recovering, and Jordan Hill continues to work toward his return, but the Spurs aren’t 100 percent either. Tony Parker is still receiving treatment on a sprained left ankle from March 1, according to Mike Monroe of mysanantonio.com.

As pointed out by Dan McCarney, also of mysanantonio.com, the waning offense of the Spurs has seen a decline following the point guard’s injury. The team went from averaging 107.3 points per 100 possessions in the first 60 contests to 103 points in its subsequent 20.

With Parker out of the lineup—or less than healthy—the team has lost both production and efficiency.

Before the Spurs lost to L.A. on April 14, they were averaging just 96.8 points per 100 possessions in their previous five outings. Their efficiency had dropped in every shooting category, and they went on to lose the next two, giving themselves a three-game losing streak heading into the postseason.

Despite giving up 18 points to Parker in Game 1, the Lakers held the opposing floor general to just 8-of-21 shooting. This is a good showing for a perimeter defense that has struggled all year—a perimeter defense that would have nightmares covering Russell Westbrook.

The other thing to note is that Manu Ginobili is a huge X-factor. If the Spurs’ 2-guard can re-create his Game 1 performance every step of the way, Los Angeles is in trouble. However, if he comes back down to Earth and remembers that he’s less than 100 percent, that’s a huge advantage in the Lakers’ favor.

In case you were wondering, the favorites aren’t supposed to have a decisive X-factor. They’re the favorites for a reason, and you can bet that the Thunder aren’t relying on whether or not Kevin Martin can bail out Westbrook and Kevin Durant.

Ginobili has the power to make this series for San Antonio, but he also has the potential to bring them down closer to L.A.’s level.

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When it comes to OKC and San Antonio, you have to pick your poison. They both have talent galore to bring to the table, and they both proved throughout the year that they’re the top two teams out West for a reason.

That being said, L.A. fought hard down the stretch, and the team put itself in a position to earn the more favorable of the two matchups.

Nobody’s saying it’s going to be easy, but the Lakers have the series they wanted. Now it’s time to take advantage by proving they belong in the playoffs and that they can be super after all.

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