Lakers: Dwight Howard
How should Kobe Bryant's epic yet ultimately disappointing season be remembered? For all of the turn-back-the-clock dunks? For passing Wilt Chamberlain to claim the No. 4 spot on the all-time scoring list? For eight 40-point games as a 34-year-old? For back-to-back games in March with 40-plus points and 12 assists, leading to consecutive must-have wins? For the two free throws he hit after tearing his Achilles? For 11 games with 10-plus assists as he converted to "Magic Mamba" and played point guard? For converting to defensive stopper for a stretch and being relied upon to stop the opposing team's primary ball handler?
In a season that was a struggle from start to finish for the Lakers as a team, Bryant managed to flourish as an individual, finishing fifth in the MVP voting despite the Lakers' pedestrian 47-35 record. Throughout the campaign, Bryant reinvented himself time and time again to fit the Lakers' needs at that point in the season.
It is time to appreciate all that Bryant did for the Lakers this past season, because both his future and the team's future are cloudy at the moment.
27.3 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 6.0 APG, 1.4 SPG, .463 FG, .324 3FG: It was a renaissance season for Bryant as he averaged the second-most assists per game of his career and shot his best percentage from the field since 2008-09.
Outlook for 2013-14
Bryant is aiming to be back in the lineup for opening night in late October, which would mean a remarkably quick six-month recovery from Achilles surgery. That quiets the amnesty talk, however, as the team won't be waiving Bryant and the $30.4 million it owes him in the final year of his contract if both parties share the mindset that Bryant will be back next season.
Furthermore, Bryant wants the Lakers to stay together for one more run in what could be his final season.
"It's a tough call to make," Bryant said at his exit interview. "But then again, it is one more year. One more year. That's how I look at it. One more year of this thing.
"Our contracts are ending. ... Pau [Gasol] is up after next year. Hopefully, we get Dwight [Howard] locked up so he's here for a while and the future is kind of set already. So let's take a crack at this thing."
It's the longest of long shots. Bryant would have to come back from an injury that ended the careers of the likes of Charles Barkley, Shaquille O'Neal and Isiah Thomas, and the Lakers would have to incur severe financial penalties to bring back both Gasol and Howard. However, Bryant and his franchise have surprised us before.
A: Sure, Bryant's defense slipped a bit and he was a difficult teammate at times, but all in all it was a brilliant season for the 17-year veteran.
You can say this: Howard's first season in Los Angeles wasn't as bad as his "Dwightmare" of a final season in Orlando. But that's not saying much. Howard arrived in L.A. with championship expectations but proved he still has more growing to do before he can be the linchpin on a title team.
Still, Howard deserves credit for playing from the opening-night tipoff, when his back was less than 100 percent, even though he wasn't expected to be in the lineup until January or February. He also should be recognized for missing only six games with a torn labrum in his right shoulder when he could have shut it down, with it being a contract year for him and all.
Even though Howard and the Lakers flamed out of the playoffs, with his unfortunate ejection punctuating the series sweep in Game 4 against San Antonio, it was Howard who got them to the postseason in the first place with his shutdown defense and improved overall play in the second half of the season.
17.1 PPG, 12.4 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.1 SPG, 2.4 BPG, .578 FG, .492 FT: Howard led the league in rebounding and was second in field goal percentage, so even though his scoring was the lowest it's been since his second season in the league and his free throw percentage was sub-50 percent for the second straight season, he still was mighty impactful.
Outlook for 2013-14
Howard has plenty of incentive to re-sign in L.A., as the Lakers can offer a five-year, $118 million deal versus just the four years and $88 million any competitor can put on the table, but the 27-year-old has vowed to take his time with the decision.
"For me, I'm going to do what's best for myself, what's going to make me happy," Howard said at his exit interview. "At the end of the day, I can't control who likes me and who dislikes me, but I have the right to be happy. That's what I'm going to do. That's the biggest thing right there."
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Pau Gasol left his exit meeting with general manager Mitch Kupchak on Tuesday with an increased sense that he may have played his last game with the Lakers.
“The future is uncertain,” Gasol said. “There’s no doubt about it. It’s a possibility that I could be gone and there’s a possibility that I could stay. I don’t know the exact percentages of it. But I’m prepared for either way.
“I understand the challenges that the franchise is facing, the decisions that they have to make in order to keep the team in the direction that they want to -- looking at the present and the future and also understanding the business side of it. So, it’s a lot going on. I wish things were a little simpler, but they’re not. So we’ll see.”
If the Lakers keep next season's payroll at about $100 million, as it was in 2012-13, the team would owe about $85 million in additional luxury-tax penalties because of the more punitive stipulations in the league’s new collective bargaining agreement.
Could Gasol and the rest of the Lakers' major pieces all be back next season? Kupchak said that possibility is “in play.”
“We haven’t ruled anything out as of now,” he said.
Yet Kupchak used similar language to admit that the opposite is also a possibility: "When you lose, everybody is in play ... whether it's Pau or anybody else, we'll look for ways to improve the team."
Gasol's contract has one year remaining at $19.3 million. From a financial perspective, the assumption was that the Lakers would try to trade his expiring deal or opt to use their one-time amnesty provision on the 12-year veteran.
“(Kupchak) couldn’t really tell me, ‘Hey, thanks for everything you’ve done, it’s more likely you’re going to be gone,’ or no, ‘Don’t worry about it, you’re going to stay here. We’re going to make it happen,’” Gasol said. “Which is to be expected. I appreciate Mitch’s honesty and everything that he’s done and the franchise has done for the last two years to keep me here and have me on the team.”
The two-year time frame Gasol was referring to started with his nearly being traded and has included a second-round exit from the playoffs last season, coach Mike Brown's being fired early this season, and a first-round sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs last week.
Gasol, who turns 33 in July, said his experience with the Lakers changed significantly after the three-way trade between the Lakers, Houston Rockets and New Orleans Hornets was vetoed by NBA commissioner David Stern on the eve of the first day of training camp for the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.
The moments are far too many to number at this point and in the aftermath of the season just blend together like a marathon showing of “Jersey Shore.”
But perhaps the most fascinating moment came Sunday night as Dwight Howard was inexcusably ejected from a game in which he was one of only two players from the Lakers’ regular rotation able to walk.
Howard already had received a technical in the first half for complaining about a call, then picked up a second technical a little less than two minutes into the third quarter with the Lakers down 55-34. Many Lakers fans hadn’t even made it back to their seats from halftime as Howard walked back to the locker room.
Less than two minutes after Howard's ejection, Kobe Bryant, who was watching the game from the Lakers’ locker room, was making his way to the Lakers’ bench on crutches.
He didn’t want to be a distraction to the team but wanted to be as close to them as possible. He was at the Lakers’ facility for practices and shootarounds, but disappeared before the media were allowed in. He also was in the locker room and training room at Staples Center before and after home games, but was nowhere to be found when the doors opened for the media.
His reaction in the locker room after Dwight’s ejection was no doubt priceless and deserved a string of hashtag-laced tweets, had he not sworn off Twitter posts during games after it became a distraction in the aftermath of Game 1 in San Antonio.
Howard said by the time he got to the locker room, Bryant wasn’t there and he had no idea he had walked out onto the court. Maybe Bryant wanted to be as far away from Howard as possible after his boneheaded decisions and lackluster performance (seven points, five turnovers and eight rebounds) and the furthest he could get without leaving was actually limping toward the bench.
Maybe Bryant just wanted to give the Lakers, down 58-37 with 8:47 left in the third quarter, some inspiration or the fans something to cheer about. But aside from a momentary standing ovation, a short “M-V-P!” chant and an even shorter 7-2 Lakers’ run, that was about it.
Bryant was like a hobbled coach sitting behind the bench. He would get up and lean on his crutches as he yelled instructions at Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock, then whispered in their ears when they sat down in front of him.
“He’s always coaching,” Goudelock said. “I’m like a dog when I’m listening to him talk. My ears stand straight up. You can’t teach the things he’s been through.
“I think he thought we felt a little push, a little motivation, a little something to get the crowd into it. I think he did that, but it’s just tough.”
Bryant wouldn’t talk after the game and isn’t scheduled to address the media after exit interviews on Monday and Tuesday. As he sat in the back of a golf cart and was asked about Howard being ejected, Bryant laughed as the cart sped away while reporters chased after him.
Howard probably wished he were able to speed away in the back of a cart as he was once again noncommittal about his future with the Lakers and unaware that Bryant walked out onto the court almost as soon as Howard left the court.
“I haven’t seen him,” Howard said. “I didn’t see him. I didn’t even know he went out there.”
Either Howard wasn’t being totally honest or he simply checked out of the game as soon as he was ejected and didn’t care what his team did in the second half and was immune to why the crowd was cheering moments after he left. Either way, it wasn’t a good look.
The beginning of the Lakers’ offseason will begin the relentless debate about Howard and Bryant’s relationship, which Howard hates talking about almost as much as his plans for next season.
"We've had a pretty good relationship before I got here and I think a lot of people twisted a lot of things,” Howard said. “The fake fights that people said we supposedly had, we maintained a pretty good relationship and we'll continue to be here for him throughout a process that he has to go through recovering from his Achilles."
There had been a feeling that perhaps Bryant’s injury may have brought the two players together. Howard visited Bryant in the locker room and at his house, and he made sure other players visited him, as well.
"I don't think that we were that far apart [before Bryant's injury],” Howard said. “We're not best friends, but like I said, I want to be there for him. Having an injury is a tough thing to deal with alone, and I just want to be there for him as a brother before anything.”
Whether Howard will be there for him next season as a teammate, as well, or whether the two crossed paths at Staples Center for the last time as Lakers on Sunday won’t be known anytime soon. That decision will just be the next episode in what has become Hollywood’s most interesting reality show.
The question is: Should it be?
The Lakers have already made their intentions clear. They want Howard back.
"Dwight is our future," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said back in February to debunk all the trade rumors that were swirling.
"It's hard to get talent in this league, and to have a talent like Dwight Howard, we have no intention of trading Dwight Howard," Kupchak continued. "He belongs to have his name on the wall [as a retired uniform] and a statue in front of Staples [Center] at some point in time."
They certainly won't be erecting a statue based on Howard's 2012-13 alone. In a season that started with Howard coming off of spinal surgery -- later admitting that his back could have feasibly kept him out of the lineup until March -- and included Howard missing six games because of a torn labrum in his right shoulder, Howard never lived up to the "Superman" reputation that preceded his arrival here.
The nine-year veteran made his seventh All-Star team, but his 17.1 points per game were his lowest average since his second season in the league, his 12.4 rebounds were his lowest since his third season, and his 49.2 percent mark from the foul line represented the second straight season he's shot less than 50 percent from the charity stripe. Not to mention the former three-time Defensive Player of the Year winner finished tied for 14th in the voting for the award this season.
With Kobe Bryant going down with a season-ending Achilles tear, Howard's numbers have increased to 20.6 points, 14.0 rebounds and 3.0 blocks on 55.7 percent shooting from the floor in five games as the No. 1 option with Bryant gone. But the Lakers have gone just 2-3, including 0-3 to open up their first round series against the San Antonio Spurs.
All year long, when asked about his future plans after this season, Howard's go-to response was that he was only concentrating on winning a championship in L.A. in 2013.
Barring the Lakers becoming the first team in NBA history to come back from an 0-3 deficit to win their series against the Spurs, and then somehow going on to win three more series without Bryant on the court, Howard's championship goal will go unfulfilled this season.
So, what will he decide to do?
While the Lakers have been forthright with their plan to build around Howard, the 27-year-old has been evasive as to whether he sees his future including L.A.
When asked about what the offseason could bring following Saturday's practice, Howard said, "I haven't thought about it."
Even if Howard wasn't telling the truth, he can't act on any decision he would make for more than two months; he becomes a free agent July 1.
At that point, Howard can sign a five-year, $118 million contract to stay with the Lakers, or a four-year, $87.6 million deal with another team.
While the extra $31 million in guaranteed money might not seem like as big a deal for a player who is on a career track to warrant yet another max contract when his next one is up, Howard learned that he isn't as indestructible as he thought this season, after only missing seven games total in his first seven seasons in Orlando.
According to several sources familiar with Howard's thinking, Howard will likely explore free agency before reaching his final decision. In today's media landscape, that means there will be a circus in July while Howard hears pitches from the likes of the Dallas Mavericks and Cleveland Cavaliers.
Even if it is merely Howard doing his due diligence before making a major life decision, the frenzy it is sure to create will give Howard a taste of the backlash he could face if he ultimately decides to uproot from L.A. just one year removed from the "Dwightmare" that surrounded his exit from Orlando.
As bad as Howard's first season in Los Angeles went -- from a coaching change, to myriad injuries, to the death of the Lakers' legendary owner Dr. Jerry Buss, a media spotlight that criticized him for everything from his free throws to lack of effort to the headband and arm sleeve he wore -- L.A. is still set up to be a place for his career to blossom.
The things that could give him pause, mainly his relationship with Bryant and his belief in Mike D'Antoni, can be worked on, and if Howard indeed signs a five-year deal, odds are he'll outlast both of those guys in L.A. anyway.
While Howard has been tight-lipped when it comes to answers about his future plans all season long, maybe his true intention has been on his Twitter profile all this time.
Howard's avatar shows him in a gold Lakers uniform staring down at a basketball that he holds in both of his big hands. Behind him hang the uniforms of legendary Lakers big men: George Mikan's No. 99, Wilt Chamberlain's No. 13, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's No. 33 and Shaquille O'Neal's No. 34.
His Twitter bio is three words: "After the ring!"
We'll find out sometime in the coming months after the season whether he'll continue to seek that ring with the Lakers, or if he'll have to change that avatar of his.
But as has been the case for most of the season, the Lakers' dream became a nightmare: Due to a rash of injuries to their rotational guards, Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock were forced to start a playoff game against the San Antonio Spurs on Friday night.
Except the duo's play wasn’t the issue in Game 3. The two combined for 44 points on 17-of-32 shooting, which is better than some of the nights Bryant and Nash have had as a duo.
The issue was the defensive end of the floor, as the Lakers allowed the Spurs to score 120 points on 61.2 percent shooting. The Spurs had more turnovers (14 to 13) and less made free throws (11 to 15), yet they still won by 31 points, making for the worst home loss in Lakers playoff history.
While the Lakers certainly had every excuse to lose considering the personnel they were playing, it was disconcerting to see how little effort they put into their defensive execution, especially in their transition defense.
In the beginning of the fourth quarter, Pau Gasol threw up a wild shot out of a double-team on the left block and, thinking he was fouled, yelled out in frustration and stopped to stare at the nearest referee.
Meanwhile, Manu Ginobili grabbed the rebound and ignited a fast break as Tim Duncan raced downcourt, easily outpacing both Gasol and Dwight Howard, who had also decided to jog back.
One of the keys of transition defense -- which no Laker did -- is stopping the ball, as all five guys turned their backs to Ginobili, who had time to wind up and throw a three-quarters court pass to a wide-open Duncan in the paint.
Chris Duhon, the only Laker who hustled back, had no choice but to foul Duncan, and only then did Gasol and Howard finally get into the fray. Duncan, who’s 37 years old and had played just as many minutes as either Laker big men at the time, made both free throws, extending the Spurs’ lead to 90-67 with 10:41 remaining.
Even when trailing by over 20 points and trying to make a late-game comeback, the Lakers haven’t had the determination to play consistent defense.
Despite misconception, the Spurs aren’t a potent transition team, ranking just 13th in fast-break points and 17th in transition points per possession, but the Lakers allowed them to score 19 fast-break points, which would rank second in the league throughout the season.
By virtually every conceivable category, the Lakers are a below-average defensive team. The Spurs have taken advantage of that all series, using well-timed offensive flurries to turn a one- or two-possession game into a double-digit deficit.
Against an offensive juggernaut like San Antonio that has more depth and talent than the Lakers, there’s almost no margin for error, as Game 3 showed. For the Lakers to have any chance at winning Game 4 on Sunday and extending the series for at least one more game, they’ll have to show a level of defensive coherence and effort that’s been missing all season.
Stats used in this post are from ESPN.com, NBA.com/Stats and MySynergySports.com.
LOS ANGELES -- At the very least, tip your hat to Andrew Goudelock and Darius Morris.
The Los Angeles Lakers had no business beating the San Antonio Spurs on Friday with no Kobe Bryant, no Steve Nash and no Steve Blake in the lineup.
Despite Goudelock's MVP campaign in the D-League, they had no business having as much faith in a guy who spent all season with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers to start a playoff game against the team that won the second-most games in the West this season.
And even though Morris started 17 games this season and continued to stay in the gym late even when his minutes dwindled the last two months, there was no real evidence that putting the ball in his hands for a crucial playoff game could work.
But you couldn't peg this one on the backcourt. In fact, Goudelock tied Tony Parker with 20 points and Darius Morris scored 24 to go along with six assists.
OK, enough about the silver lining.
Friday wasn't the official death knell for this (literally) painful Lakers season as L.A. doesn't go fishing until the Spurs have won four games, but no team in NBA history has ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit and this depleted Lakers squad certainly isn't going to be the first.
The 31-point blowout in Game 3 was the worst home playoff loss in franchise history, beating out Game 2 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals when Portland won by 29.
In a way, it seemed fitting.
In a season where everything that could go wrong seemingly did -- from a coaching change, to rampant injuries, slow-forming chemistry and even the death of legendary owner Dr. Jerry Buss -- why wouldn't a record like that be attached to this team?
How it happened: A whole lot of Tim Duncan (26 points on 12-for-16 shooting), some stingy Spurs defense (L.A. shot just 43.2 percent and 4-for-20 from 3) and too much depth from the guys in black and silver against the guys who are black and blue with injuries.
What it means: The offseason questions will begin sooner than a lot of us expected. Is Mike D'Antoni truly safe, or will those "We want Phil!" chants we heard on Friday actually come to fruition? Who gets waived via the amnesty clause -- Kobe? Pau Gasol? Blake? Metta World Peace? Anybody? Will Dwight Howard re-sign? Will Nash and Bryant be able to come back healthy for their 18th seasons?
Hits: Gasol had his third triple-double in his last six games with 11 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists.
Morris and Goudelock (see above).
Dwight Howard had 25 points and 11 rebounds but shot just 7-for-15 from the free throw line.
Misses: After 31 points combined in his last two regular-season games, Antawn Jamison has just 19 points combined in the playoffs.
Stat of the game: The Spurs bench scored 46 points. The Lakers' bench scored nine.
Up next: Game 4 is Sunday at 4 p.m. PT. There's a chance Nash will be back, but you get the feeling that chance would be better if L.A. had won Friday.
SAN ANTONIO -- Without the guy with the reputation for being basketball's ultimate closer, the Los Angeles Lakers looked lost and overmatched in the final minutes of quarters all night in their 102-91 loss in Game 2 to the San Antonio Spurs.
While the Spurs' Tim Duncan, who turns 37 on Thursday, was able to put his stamp on the game with 16 points, five rebounds and two blocks, the Lakers' 39-year-old Steve Nash looked, quite literally, to be on his last leg.
Playing for only the second time since missing the Lakers' final eight regular-season games with nerve damage in his right hamstring stemming from a right hip injury, Nash was just a shell of his former two-time MVP self.
Nash gave it his all in 32 minutes, shooting 50 percent from the field (nine points on 4-for-8 shooting) and dishing out a game-high six assists, but he didn't have the type of impact on the game he's used to having, and was seen limping around the court in dead-ball situations.
The Kobe Bryant-less Lakers just didn't have an answer on offense or composure on defense at the end of quarters, whereas the Spurs hunkered down and made what started off as anybody's game, another W for the team in silver and black.
How it happened: The Spurs were 35-6 at home and the No. 2 team in the West during the regular season for a reason. As much as it was Duncan's consistency, it was about Tony Parker's brilliance (28 points and seven assists), Matt Bonner's timeliness (10 points on 4-for-5 shooting, five rebounds and three steals), Kawhi Leonard's athleticism (16 points, seven rebounds) and Manu Ginobili's Manu-ness (13 points and seven assists in 19 minutes).
What it means: The Lakers played inside-out as planned and it wasn't enough. Dwight Howard (16 points, nine rebounds, four blocks) wasn't as dominant as planned (five turnovers, five fouls), nor was Pau Gasol (13 points on 5-for-14 shooting).
Hits: L.A. made slight improvements in 3-point shooting (8-for-22 instead of 3-for-15) and turnovers (13 instead of 18) from Game 1.
Steve Blake had 16 points before injuring his leg late in the game.
Misses: Jodie Meeks (sprained left ankle) did not play.
Stat of the game: The Spurs had seven players with seven points or more.
Up next: The Lakers are sure to get an emotional lift with Bryant in the building for Friday's Game 3 at Staples Center. As they say in this business, a playoff series doesn't truly start until a team wins on the road. If the Lakers can hold serve and win on their home court, then going into Game 4 down 2-1 doesn't seem so daunting. Of course, if they lose Friday then it will just about be time to turn the lights off on the Lakers' thoroughly disappointing 2012-13 season.
"Mike’s a great coach," said Mike D'Antoni, Brown's replacement in L.A. "He’ll do a great job."
"I’m happy for him," said Pau Gasol, one of the eight players on the Lakers roster who played for Brown in 2011-12, his only full season in L.A. "I think Mike is a really good coach, so he’s going to I’m sure help Cleveland be a better team. They have a young team. Mike is a hardworking coach. Very dedicated. Pays attention to detail. So, he’s going to help them out."
Said Steve Nash: "He’s an extremely hard worker, a very passionate basketball person. He has an emphasis on defense and he does a great job. I think he’s a very good coach."
Added Dwight Howard: "I’m happy for him. He’s a great guy and he’s back in Cleveland, so I’m pretty sure he’s happy about that."
It remains to be seen just how happy Lakers management will end up about the development.
The Lakers owe Brown approximately $7 million for the remaining two years on his contract with the team, but the Cleveland hiring will offset some of that. According to a team source, the Lakers expect "at most" half of what they owe Brown to be offset and that the $3-4 million that it would amount to would be a "grain of sand on the beach" when it comes to impacting the Lakers' finances. The Lakers will not know the final amount they will save on the Brown hiring until his new contract with the Cavs is finalized and approved by the league, which could take "up to a month," according to the source.
The other way Brown's hiring could be felt in L.A. is with D'Antoni's coaching staff. All but two of D'Antoni's assistants -- his brother, Dan D'Antoni and Chuck Person, who was hired when Phil Jackson was the head coach -- were brought on by Brown.
That means that D'Antoni could have significant spots on his staff to fill next season if Brown attempts to lure assistant coaches Steve Clifford, Bernie Bickerstaff, Darvin Ham, player development coach Phil Handy or the team video and support staff of Kyle Triggs, J.J. Outlaw and Tom Bialaszewski.
"You know what? I’m thinking about San Antonio, that’s all I got time for," D'Antoni said Wednesday when asked if he's considered what his coaching staff could look like next season. "Then we’ll figure out everything else later. No, I’m not even thinking about it."
SAN ANTONIO -- If any one thing was established in Game 1 of the Los Angeles Lakers' series against the San Antonio Spurs, it was the Kobe Bryant-less Lakers intend to get the ball inside to Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol early, often and always.
"We're inside-out now," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said Monday. "We're full blown and we're going to keep doing that."
Howard and Gasol accounted for 28 of the Lakers' 73 shots Sunday (38.4 percent). But they also coughed up 10 of the Lakers' 18 turnovers.
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsThe Lakers still plan to utilize Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol in Game 2, but their approach of how they get them the ball could be different.
"Let's see if we can have a little bit better ball movement before we try to get the ball in, because if we try to fight it too much and force it too much is when the turnovers came in, most of them," Gasol said. "So, we just got to move their defense a little bit better and swing the ball, then try to post the ball up into Dwight or myself. Then it won't be as easy for them to front or make things hard for us."
D'Antoni said the goal for the two practices between Sunday's Game 1 and Wednesday's Game 2 was "cleaning up our offense."
That entails cutting down on the 18 turnovers that led to 14 points for the Spurs, but also shooting the ball better. L.A. shot just 41.1 percent overall from the field, and an anemic 3-for-15 on 3-pointers (20 percent). D'Antoni said Andrew Goudelock, an undersized guard with a legitimate 3-point stroke who was in the D-League a week ago, could also get playing time.
"A lot of it is just not being familiar with what we’re trying to do, putting in new sets, guys not being in the right spots," D'Antoni said. "A lot of it is [the Spurs] are active and they're good. We have to be a little bit smoother in what we're doing in trying to clear out. Again, we're trying to put the ball inside all the time into a tight spot. We got a lot of guys in there, so it's just trying to clean and do a better job. Some of it was we just mishandled the ball. We just got to be a little more careful with the ball."
Gasol was asked to explain exactly what the "new sets" and "wrinkles" that D'Antoni was talking about the Lakers had planned, without giving away too much.
"We're just trying to move the ball and create a couple actions before we dump the ball in the post," Gasol said. "We got to move their defense so the passes are not so forced and it's not so predictable and everybody sees that we're trying to keep that path right now and everybody's looking at it.
L.A. has to feel good about itself, finishing the regular season 28-12 after bottoming out with a record eight games below .500 in late January. They were even better in April, going 7-1, including winning their last five in a row to secure the No. 7 seed and set up their date with the No. 2 Spurs.
However, during that final postseason push, Kobe Bryant went out with an Achilles tear in his left foot, requiring surgery that will sideline him for six to nine months.
Can the Bryant-less Lakers upset a Spurs team that finished with the second-best record in the West and third-best record in the entire league?
Here are 10 things to think about heading into the series to determine just how realistic a possibility that is.
1. San Antonio's home-court advantage
Even though the Spurs looked somewhat ripe for the picking, having gone 3-7 over their final 10 games of the regular season, remember that the series opens up at the AT&T Center, where they went 35-6 this season. Meanwhile, the Lakers were just 16-25 away from Staples Center. It will be a major challenge for L.A. to bring the series back home with a split after the first two games in San Antonio.
Definitely the body part that could have the biggest impact on the series for both teams. Steve Nash plans to play in Game 1 after missing the Lakers' last eight games because of a bum right hamstring, hip and lower back. Manu Ginobili only played one game in April -- an uninspiring 12 minutes in the season finale -- because of his own right hamstring injury. If Ginobili is healthy, he could have a field day carving up the Lakers' perimeter defense that is missing Bryant and has a hobbled Metta World Peace out there still less than a month removed from knee surgery. If Nash is healthy, L.A. gets another elite shooter to help open up the floor so Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol have more room to operate down low.
As he sat in front of his locker following the media scrum he said, “Look at what the Kings did last year. They got into the playoffs as the eight seed and won the Stanley Cup. We’re trying to do the same thing.”
Bryant attended a number of the Los Angeles Kings' playoff games with his daughters during their magical and improbable run to the Stanley Cup last summer and didn’t understand why it couldn’t be duplicated on the basketball court this summer.
Of course, that was before Bryant was lost for the season and we found out that Steve Nash's assortment of injuries weren’t just day-to-day bad but taking-two-epidurals-just-to-practice bad. Nevertheless, Bryant’s stance doesn’t change and neither does the Lakers’ goal heading into the playoffs.
After the Lakers clinched a playoff berth that Bryant promised would happen back when the Lakers were well below .500, he tweeted, “And to think some said we wouldn’t make it.. #keepcalm #believe #playoffs now #makehistory”
He later tweeted, “Playoff promise fulfilled #ontothenext”
It doesn’t make sense that the Lakers will be entering the playoffs, without Bryant and possibly without Nash, as confident as they’ve been all season. But that’s exactly the way the Lakers were feeling after their 99-95 overtime win over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday to clinch the seventh seed and a first round match-up against the San Antonio Spurs which begins on Sunday.
They are finally moving the ball the way Mike D’Antoni envisioned they could. They are finally playing defense with the kind of intensity that Dwight Howard hoped they would. And they are playing inside-out and relying on their bigs as Pau Gasol and Howard have pleaded for since November.
In what seemed like a remote possibility months ago and a dicey proposition even a week ago when Kobe Bryant went out with a torn Achilles, the Lakers not only got into the playoffs, they got in playing a brand of basketball that could equate to some continued postseason success.
Here they are, 16 wins from an unlikely championship No. 17, with a suddenly stingy defense that allowed its past two opponents -- one of them being the highest-scoring team in the league in the Houston Rockets and the other being the No. 2 team in the West in the San Antonio Spurs -- to average 93 points on 39.3 percent shooting.
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesDwight Howard, left, Jodie Meeks and Pau Gasol know the Lakers are an inside-out team now and hope that style will continue to flourish in the playoffs.
Even when the ball was spread around Wednesday, it didn't always go in, of course; L.A. shot just 36.7 percent as a team. But the fact that it kept moving kept the Lakers' bodies moving on defense.
"The great thing about it was everybody contributed," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said.
Who makes up the "everybody" on the Lakers' roster that D'Antoni was referring to has changed drastically throughout the season and maybe even more so in the past two games without Bryant.
Suddenly Darius Morris has a place off the bench. And Steve Blake is relied on to score (47 points over his past two games, a dramatic change from the player who scored two points or fewer 16 times in 2011-12). And Jodie Meeks is starting in Bryant's place and even receiving "Jo-die! Jo-die!" chants from the crowd, taking Kobe's cheers.
Most important, the team identity is firmly established. The Lakers are an inside-out team controlled by Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. They are not the second coming of Showtime. They are not Bryant freelancing with shades of the triangle. They are not Steve Nash running the pick-and-roll or Bryant running the pick-and-roll.
This is a team that will slow you down, grind you out, pound you all over and do it on both ends.
"Because [Bryant is] such a big, important part of what we did, and rightly so, it is different," D'Antoni said before the game Wednesday. "And then when Nash comes back, it will be a little different again. So, there’s always different layers, but he’s a big layer or two."
LOS ANGELES -- In what has seemed at times like a never-ending Los Angeles Lakers season, the last game of the regular season came down to the last minute of overtime.
The Memphis Grizzlies seemingly took most of the drama out of the night for the Los Angeles Lakers before their game had even tipped off against the Houston Rockets.
Memphis beat the Utah Jazz to assure the Lakers a playoff berth for the eighth straight season and 19th time in the past 20.
So, as disastrous as the Lakers' season has seemed, L.A. did make good on Kobe Bryant's playoff guarantee even with Bryant out for the rest of the season after Achilles tendon surgery and, even with a loss against Houston, L.A. would finish the season 28-12 over its final 40 games.
But there was still the business of who the Lakers' and Rockets' first-round opponents would be.
The winner would get to play the No. 2-seeded San Antonio Spurs. The loser would have to face the Western Conference's top team, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
L.A. gets the Spurs, it turns out, after a 99-95 overtime win over the Rockets. So instead of having to face a 60-win Oklahoma City team that ousted L.A. from the playoffs last season, the Lakers get a Spurs team that is just 3-7 over its last 10 games heading into the playoffs, including a 91-86 loss to the Lakers last weekend.
How it happened: L.A. fell down 18-12 early, prompting coach Mike D'Antoni to call a timeout, which spurred a 9-0 run by the Lakers. The Rockets built their lead to 11 in the second half before the Lakers' new "big three" of Steve Blake (24 points after 23 points Sunday against San Antonio), Dwight Howard (16 points) and Pau Gasol (17 points and a bunch of other great stats), gave the team a three-point lead with less than a minute left in the fourth. That's when the ball found itself in the hands of the Rockets' Chandler Parsons, who hit a dead-away 3-pointer from 36 feet to tie the score at the regulation buzzer.
In overtime, Jodie Meeks atoned for his 1-for-9 start from the field by throwing down a momentum-changing baseline dunk, and tacking on a huge free throw to put L.A. up by four with 14.5 seconds left. James Harden cut it to two with two free throws, but Blake iced it with a final two freebies to end the game 8-for-8 from the line.
What it means: The Lakers are 2-0 without Bryant, and even though San Antonio is still a tough place to open the playoffs, there is no denying the momentum they will take with them into the postseason whether No. 24 is in the lineup or not.
Hits: Gasol finished with 17 points, 20 rebounds and 11 assists for his second triple-double in his last three games.
Blake's 47 points over his last two games are more than Steve Nash's highest two-game total this season (38, twice).
Antawn Jamison scored 16 points off the bench.
Misses: Nash missed his eighth straight game because of right hip, hamstring and lower-back pain. Nash revealed to ESPN's Chris Broussard during an in-game sideline interview that he received two epidurals this week to try to deal with the pain.
Stat of the game: L.A. held Houston, which had averaged 106.1 points coming into Wednesday, to just 95 points in 53 minutes of game time.
Up next: The Lakers will open up the postseason with Game 1 of its first-round series with the Spurs in San Antonio on Sunday.
He'd been there, and so he is determined to be there for Kobe Bryant as he goes through the same experience now, trying to come back from a completely torn Achilles tendon.
Saturday afternoon Howard visited Bryant at the hospital before and after he'd had surgery. And it won't be the last time.
"I know how he feels," Howard told ESPNLosAngeles.com. "It hurts. I just wanted to be there."
Bryant mentioned the meeting on his Twitter feed after the Los Angeles Lakers outlasted the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday night.
"D12 was a beast," Bryant tweeted. "He stopped by the hospital twice yesterday to check on big bro. that's luv #countond12"
Howard had 26 points and 17 rebounds in the win over the Spurs.
LOS ANGELES -- It figured to be an emotional night in the first Los Angeles Lakers game since Kobe Bryant went out with that devastating season-ending Achilles tear. And L.A. used the charged atmosphere to its advantage.
Here's a look back at L.A.'s game No. 81 of the season and game No. 1 without Kobe, where the Lakers improved to 44-37, the most games above .500 they've been all season:
How it happened: L.A. controlled the game from the tip and withstood the Hack-a-Howard strategy by the San Antonio Spurs in the third quarter to pull ahead in the end, thanks to some timely fourth-quarter buckets by Antawn Jamison and made free throws by Dwight Howard and Steve Blake.
What it means: If the Utah Jazz lose either of their next two games -- at the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday or at the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday -- the Lakers are in the playoffs no matter what happens on Wednesday, when the Lakers host the Houston Rockets in their regular-season finale.
Hits: Howard might have shot just 4-for-11 on free throws in the third quarter, but he was lights out all game for the most part. He clearly wanted to step up in Bryant's absence and finished with 26 points and 17 rebounds, while shooting 9-for-15 from the floor.
Blake scored 23 points, topping the 20-point plateau for just the 17th time of his 10-year career.
Jamison scored nine of his 15 points in the fourth quarter.
Misses: Gasol shot just 3-for-17 from the floor -- but chipped in 16 rebounds.
Stat of the game: The Lakers shot just 31-for-85 from the field (36.5 percent) and still managed to win, holding San Antonio to 37.1 percent shooting overall.
Up next: One game left -- Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. against Houston. Oh boy.