It took every available day of the regular season and meant wounds both self- and externally inflicted, but the Lakers managed to qualify for the playoffs Wednesday night. They even avoided the high-powered Oklahoma City Thunder in the process.
And while the San Antonio Spurs, winners of 58 games and featuring the best power forward in history along with the league’s best coach can hardly be considered the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, it is certainly a lot easier to visualize LA competing with the Spurs than the Thunder. San Antonio is beat up and limped to the finish line. The Lakers won eight of nine, needing all of ’em just to get in, and feel as good about themselves now as they have all season despite significant injury problems of their own.
So are the Spurs really a wounded antelope at the watering hole, vulnerable to predators? Are the Lakers, short Kobe Bryant and crossing their fingers Steve Nash might be able to play, really a prowling pack of lions? Or in the end are we looking at maybe the most hyped five-game series in NBA history?
Here are five factors.
1. Pau vs. TIMMEH!
Gasol has kicked it old school since returning from his plantar fascia tear, averaging 17.5 points, 12.1 rebounds and 6.6 assists in April. Call it an increased comfort level with his coach, a better mindset, better health or a combination of all three, but the Lakers badly needed a return to championship form ffrom Gasol, and he is giving it to them.
Duncan, meanwhile, has been great all season, enjoying his best campaign since the aughts on both sides of the ball.
The winner of this matchup will go a long way toward determining the winner of the series, except for Pau, the definition of winning is a lot more difficult to meet. Even if Nash, however limited, manages to play, without Bryant on the wing the Lakers will ask Gasol to facilitate a large portion of their offense. They’ll also need him to score consistently, no easy task against one of the best defensive players of this era. (Maybe Duncan ain’t quite what he once was, but Synergy says he’s still no slouch.)
Oh, the Lakers will also need Gasol to limit Duncan at the other end while providing interior support for Dwight Howard against what we all assume will be fairly regular forays into the paint for Tony Parker.
Timmeh, meanwhile, just needs to have a few good games, because he has the better supporting cast.
2. Who generates his own shot for the Lakers?
To their credit, in the final two games of the season the Lakers held San Antonio (admittedly without Manu Ginobili or a truly healthy Parker) to 86 points on 37.1 percent shooting. Wednesday, they limited a Rockets team averaging 106.1 points to just 95, including an overtime period. (Even those in attendance believing the team would win didn’t think they would have a prayer of leaving with the coupon for free tacos when LA holds opponents under 100 points.)
You’d think with defense that good, the Lakers would have won easily. Not so. They had their own problems generating offense, particularly down the stretch against the Rockets. L.A. managed only six points over the final 5:48 of regulation, all from the line. Bad possessions piled up, in part because without Bryant, they just don’t have anyone on the perimeter capable of putting the ball on the floor and breaking down a defense. Gasol can help the guards as a facilitator, but not off the dribble.
Howard has steadily evolved into something resembling his old self and Post-Fascia Tear Pau has been great. But unless the Lakers can find ways to open things up for them, the Spurs will make it very tough for the bigs to score efficiently.
Metta to the rescue?
3. How healthy are San Antonio’s stars?
The perception of vulnerability around the Spurs is first about health. Ginobili missed nine games before playing 12 minutes in Wednesday’s meaningless season finale vs. Minnesota. Parker has been in and out of the lineup all month with ankle problems and a neck injury nobody seems to believe is a neck injury. Boris Diaw will miss the first round after back surgery and Kawhi Leonard has battled knee pain.
It has meant a real lack of continuity for Pop’s crew over the last 20 games, explaining their lackluster 10-10 record and fading productivity. The root cause may be easy to diagnose but doesn’t change the fact the Spurs haven’t played well and makes it reasonable to ask if they regain form so easily.
Meanwhile, on paper at least, the Lakers match up with the Spurs about as well as any top-four team in the West and enter the postseason having won eight of their last nine.
For San Antonio, everyone save Diaw should be available by Sunday for Game 1. The Spurs have more balance and depth than LA (hardly the picture of health themselves), home court advantage, a system in which they have total faith and basically every reason to believe they ought to beat the Lakers. And they’re right.
But at the very least, there are enough hope-inducing straws for the Lakers to grasp.
4. The Shadow of Phil now becomes the Presence of Pop
Mike D’Antoni hasn’t exactly endeared himself to Lakers fans since taking over for Mike Brown (despite being named April’s Western Conference Coach of the Month!). Some of it is his fault – he alienated Pau Gasol (no easy task) seemingly within hours of arriving in El Segundo, seemed determined to fit square pegs into round holes and jerked guys in and out of the rotation without warning. Most importantly, there was too much losing early in his tenure.
And this was before LA watched in horror as Bryant – after piling up 736 gazillion minutes over his previous seven games – snapped his Achilles tendon last week. In the minds of many fans, D’Antoni did what nobody before him could:
He broke Kobe.
To be fair, the circumstances under which he has worked have been almost impossible. The five-man lineup LA hoped to put on the floor (Bryant, Gasol, Howard, Nash, Metta World Peace) has played a grand total of 189 minutes together. Gasol, Nash, World Peace, Jordan Hill and Steve Blake all have missed significant time, Howard has healed on the go, and now Bryant is gone. There has been no continuity whatsoever, and D’Antoni didn’t even have the benefit of training camp to learn his guys and try to match his system to the roster.
Still, even as the Lakers turned things around, winning 28 of their final 40 games (albeit often unimpressively and not often enough against good competition), most fans give D’Antoni little credit. This, in part, because he is constantly being compared to Phil Jackson, not just because of the 11 rings, but because the Lakers gave everyone – fans, media, hell even the players and Jackson’s agent – the impression he would replace Mike Brown.
Jackson didn’t, and D’Antoni has coached against a shadow (even worse, an idealized one) all season. Now he gets to face the only other guy in the league with Jackson’s gravitas. If he is perceived to be outcoached – and by many he almost certainly will if the Lakers don’t win – the rabbit hole he has leaped into locally only gets deeper.
5. How do the Lakers stop Tony Parker?
Stop me if you’ve heard this: The Lakers struggle with quick point guards. And slow ones. And basically any point guards deemed worthy of an NBA uniform. Only four teams allowed a worse PER against opposing PG’s than LA, which now has to face a top-five MVP candidate in Parker.
Yes, I know he’s banged up, but I have a sneaking suspicion he will look much better come Game 1. The problem for the Lakers comes in defending him. Nash, should his nerve pain subside enough for him to play, won’t have a prayer. The Lakers are actually a better defensive team with Blake on the floor, but asking him to check Parker and produce points at the other end (the Lakers will need them, particularly if Nash is limited) is a lot.
Does D’Antoni give more minutes to Darius Morris, who has length and strength but virtually no experience, making him the type of player Pop picks his teeth with during the postseason? Chris Duhon? Freshly signed Andrew Goudelock?
The first key will be limiting transition opportunities, where they will have absolutely no answer.
But in the end, like most things on the defensive end, it will come down to how well Howard can protect the paint, and how well he can do it while blowing up as many San Antonio pick-and-rolls as possible on the perimeter. If the Spurs can recapture some of their early season efficiency, that becomes awfully tough, even for a multiple-time DPOY. At their best, the Spurs capitalize on nearly every defensive mistake an opponent makes.
And even with Howard there to clean things up, the Lakers make plenty.
SHERIDAN: Spurs in 5.
HUBBARD: Spurs in 6.
HEISLER: Spurs in 5.
BERNUCCA: Spurs in 4.
HAMILTON: Spurs in 5.
PERKINS: Spurs in 5.
SCHAYES: Spurs in 6.
ANDY KAMENETZKY: Spurs in 6.
BRIAN KAMENETZKY: Spurs in 5.
ZAGORIA: Spurs in 6.
PARK: Lakers in 7.