The Lakers (45-37) might have gotten their most favorable first-round matchup in the San Antonio Spurs (58-24). Now they have the actual task of playing the Spurs.
San Antonio is the prohibitive favorite. They averaged 103 points a game while giving up 96.6 this season. The Lakers scored 102.2 but gave up 101 -- and they have no Kobe Bryant, who is out with a torn left Achilles’ tendon.
The Lakers just gave the Spurs a very difficult time without Bryant last Sunday, winning 91-86. San Antonio won the first two games between the teams this season by a combined total of only five points, despite the Lakers playing shorthanded because of injuries.
Tony Parker has been struggling recently after shin and neck injuries. Manu Ginobili is recovering from a hamstring strain.
At full strength, the Spurs should be the favorites, but are they at full strength?
Without Bryant, the Lakers have reinvented themselves as a low-scoring, defensive-oriented squad that pounds the ball inside and guards the paint. Point guard Steve Nash is expected back from hip and hamstring soreness, too.
Can the Lakers maintain the same high level of defense with Nash? Can he be the late-game, clutch scorer the team lacks without Bryant?
Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are still the heart and soul of the Spurs.
Duncan is one of the best power forwards in NBA history. This season he averaged 17.8 points a game on 50.2% shooting with 9.9 rebounds and 2.7 blocked shots. Duncan’s free-throw shooting was a steady 81.7% as well.
He’s a clutch scorer and defensive anchor.
The Lakers will play both Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol against Duncan. Few teams aside from the Lakers have the size to play against the Spurs All-Star.
San Antonio did a strong job defensively on Gasol last Sunday, forcing him into a 3-of-17 shooting night. Howard scored 26 points on 9-of-15 shooting but San Antonio frequently and purposely sent him to the free-throw line where he shot 8 of 17.
Gasol will need to find his shot against a Spurs team that will be sending extra defenders at him. Howard is going to need to hit his free throws.
Parker struggled against the Lakers, shooting 1 of 10 from the field on Sunday. Expect him to play better in this series.
Nash might not be able to guard Parker but Steve Blake could draw the assignment if he starts alongside Nash with Jodie Meeks possibly returning to the bench. Darius Morris could see minutes, where he’ll be called upon to chase after Parker.
In the two games without Bryant, the Lakers got big numbers from Blake. In stretches the team had a difficult time scoring. Nash should make a difference with his ability to shoot and facilitate the offense.
Ginobili has been a big-time playoff performer for the Spurs. If he’s healthy and playing well, he’s an unpredictable scorer and playmaker. He could be the difference in the series for San Antonio.
Kawhi Leonard is a strong defender, slasher and three-point shooter at small forward. Swingman Danny Green also defends well and hits the three. Seven-foot center Tiago Splitter is capable at both ends of the court, giving the Spurs comparable size to the Lakers.
The Spurs have other threats such as guards Gary Neal and Nando De Colo as well as forwards Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair. They also signed Tracy McGrady before the end of the season to replace the waived Stephen Jackson, though McGrady’s role is yet to be determined.
With the Lakers playing inside-out, they’ll need Metta World Peace, Antawn Jamison, Meeks, Earl Clark, Morris, Blake and Nash to hit open shots.
Defensively, it’s crucial the Lakers get back in transition, close off the paint and rush out on the Spurs’ many perimeter shooters. That’s a very tall order.
The Spurs will be a significant challenge for the Lakers. San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich is arguably the best coach in the league.
If San Antonio isn’t healthy, especially Ginobili and Parker, the Lakers might have a chance to advance.
Without Bryant, however, the Lakers might have too tall a task in battling the Spurs -- if San Antonio is playing its style of basketball.
Prediction: Spurs in seven.