Below are five things to watch in the Lakers-Spurs first-round matchup, beginning with Game 1 Sunday at 12:30 p.m. PST in San Antonio.
1. How can the Lakers win without Kobe Bryant? The Lakers may have gone 2-0 since Bryant suffered a season-ending torn left Achilles tendon, an injury that required surgery. But it’s one thing to play off adrenaline for a few games and the Lakers to somehow thrive without their star player in a playoff series. The Lakers have shown a willingness to feature Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol inside. They haven’t shied away from slowing the game down and showing more disciplined on defense. Role players, such as Steve Nash and Antawn Jamison, have elevated their scoring punch.
But how much is this sustainable in a playoff series? Gasol and Howard will face more and more double teams. If the Lakers don’t consistently hit outside shots, their floor spacing will quickly evaporate. The Lakers haven’t shown who’s in the best position to take the game’s last shot. Such uncertainties could ultimately hurt the Lakers’ chances of advancing out of the first round.
2. Will momentum make a difference? Even with all the injuries and uncertainty whether the Lakers would make the playoffs, the sample size at the end of the season actually showed them to be a pretty good team. They went 28-12 in their last 40 games. Howard made significant improvements in his conditioning and overall mindset. Gasol’s health coupled with a more featured offensive role harkened back memories of his championships years with the Lakers. Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni tightened his rotation, which features a consistent scorer ( Jamison), aggressive playmaker (Blake), decent shooter (Jodie Meeks) and energy (Earl Clark). Meanwhile, the Spurs ended the season losing three consecutive games and dropping eight of their past 13 contests.
3. Can Howard survive “Hack a Dwight?” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sent D’Antoni packing early when he adopted the Hack a Shaq strategy in the 2008 Western Conference semifinals against the Phoenix Suns. It’s inevitable that the Spurs will try that on Howard, who’s shot only 49.2 percent from the foul line this season. One unintended consequence is that this strategy will help the Lakers slow the game down. But in a series that will feature possessions at a premium, Howard can’t let the pressure consume him or else the tactic will just continue. He’s proven he can rise to the occasion, such as when he went 25 of 39 from the foul line in his return in early March against Orlando. But more often, Howard allows his lack of confidence to derail his focus.
4. Will Steve Nash appear in the playoffs? Although the Lakers haven’t offered a specific timetable on Steve Nash’s return, Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said he feels “cautiously optimistic” the Lakers guard will return for the playoffs.
“It’s getting better,” Nash said. “But I don’t really know yet.”
Nash has missed the past eight games because of soreness in both his right hip and hamstring. Nash received an MRI Monday that revealed nerve issues in his hamstring and had an epidural injection Tuesday morning to minimize the pain.
During Wednesday’s morning shootaround, Nash went through what D’Antoni described as a “spirited” half-court one-on-one workout with player development coach Phil Handy.
“He’s close,” D’Antoni said. “He looked pretty good today. That’s without me talking to him, but I watched him. You can see his mood. He’s happier.”
5. How healthy will Manu Ginobili be? The Spurs’ sixth man missed nine games with a hamstring injury before returning to play 12 minutes Wednesday against Minnesota in the team’s season-finale. His health could play a large part in determining whether the Spurs flame out in the playoffs as they’ve done in recent seasons.
Ginobili’s hyperextended elbow in 2011 caused him to miss the first game of the Spurs’ first-round series against Memphis, which beat them in six games. Ginobili played through a broken nose in the 2010 playoffs, but his shooting (41.4 percent) partly contributed to losing to Phoenix in the Western Conference semifinals. In 2009,a stress fracture in Ginobili’s right leg limited his postseason appearances. In related news, the Spurs lost to the Mavericks in the first round. This year, the Spurs have relied less on Ginobili’s production from various role players (Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter). But given the track record, this element could play in the Lakers’ favor.
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org