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After a long regular season full of snaps and strains, travails and terrors and 715,973 canned arena demands that “ev-ry-bo-dy clap yo hands,” the NBA’s postseason is set to tip off this weekend. With that in place, the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie are going to preview each first-round series, with Kelly Dwyer going against character for a more genial take, Dan Devine bringing his inimitable mixture of both order and bedlam, along with Eric Freeman’s legendary look inside the reputations of some of the series’ key fixtures.
Which team do you think will win the series, and in how many games? Vote here to let us know what you think.
Kelly Dwyer’s Guide Vocal
There really isn’t an NBA month that goes by that doesn’t feature us talking ourselves into the idea of the Los Angeles Lakers doing something great. Even after all the various worrying injury and shot-selection signs that dogged the team as it entered both the 2011 and 2012 postseasons, I steadfastly held out hope that the team would find a way to streamline its attack and come through with a headier, more efficient brand of winning basketball. Instead, the team put together a 1-8 record, combined, in the second rounds of the 2011 and 2012 postseason.
In August, even with Steve Nash’s age and Mike Brown’s Everything a concern, we talked up the Lakers as championship contenders. After a winless exhibition season and pathetic early 2012-13 showing, we talked up the team’s chance to reconvene and get it right. After the team decided it couldn’t wait out Phil Jackson’s request for a day to consider things, we talked up Mike D’Antoni as a solid second choice, mainly because … holy crap: Dwight, Kobe, Pau, Nash and Metta are all on the same team?
Five months after those wasted words, here we are. The Lakers have the seventh seed in the playoffs based mainly on a 28-12 second half run that allowed the team to tie the Houston Rockets’ mark of 45 wins and vault ahead of Houston due to their superior in-conference record acting as a tie-breaker. Of course, as it was during the fool’s gold runs in 2011 and 2012, there was very little cohesion to be had along the way. Kobe Bryant shot the team back into playoff contention mainly on his own, and then snapped his Achilles. Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol (especially) played fantastic basketball to finish the season’s final two games, but there was a lot of “my turn, now it’s your turn”-ball going around.
Dwight turned in one of the worst defensive halves of his season in the Lakers’ final game before following it with one of the best defensive halves of his season in the second half of the Rockets win. Gasol was clearly the team’s most dominant offensive force against Houston, and yet at times the Lakers couldn’t be bothered to get him the ball down the stretch of regulation. Constant switch-flipping.
Nothing’s been fixed. They’re just one of 16 playoff teams now.
The Spurs, meanwhile, were a model of NBA consistency for most of the regular season, re-finding their sometimes killer defensive attributes while keeping the ball moving endlessly on the other end. Despite minding the team’s minutes all year, though, both Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili enter the postseason with health concerns, Boris Diaw could be out until mid-May, and Stephen Jackson … well, no. The Spurs aren’t going to miss Stephen Jackson. The guy shot below 40 percent this season and was terrible defensively. Those trends don’t just flip around only because Kevin Durant happens to be in the arena.
Ginobili, in particular, is a worry. He came back to play in the team’s season finale on Wednesday, missing three of four shots, and dating back to March 11, he’s strung together a particularly bad row of games to finish his injury-altered regular season. Manu has shot just 25 for 84 (29 percent) in his last 10 contests, while working through, sitting out, and ultimately returning from a hamstring injury. Ginobili and Parker’s roles have switched, in a way, with Manu taking on more of a playmaker’s job and Parker bringing the high-end scoring, but if these two can’t ham-and-egg it, the Spurs may be in store for yet another disappointing postseason.
That’s probably not going to be enough for Los Angeles, though. If San Antonio’s ball movement is on point, then the Lakers’ 20th-ranked defense will be at a loss to cover all those extra passes. It’s true that Kobe gave a lick and a promise to the defensive end all season, but his replacement in Jodie Meeks is hardly working in T.R. Dunn territory defensively. And while a 28-12 record to finish the season sounds brilliant, also remember that Bryant played his best basketball of the season during that stretch — an 11-game display in brilliance pre-Achilles injury and post a mid-March shooting slump (Bryant shot 15 for 51 during one three-game swoon) and ankle injury. It seems like a ridiculous thing to have to remind fans of, but the Lakers won’t have Kobe Bryant in this series.
San Antonio needs the rest that the extended first-round tends to give veteran teams. They have to quickly move to push the Lakers into the offseason that they’ve deserved since October.
PREDICTION: Spurs in 6.
Contribute to the Chaos with Dan Devine
For as much as we try to study and analyze every aspect of NBA life these days, in every playoff series, there are unpredictable elements — a player, a tendency, a set, a decision, etc. — that can tilt a moment on its ear, change the complexion of a game or even determine the outcome of a series. For each matchup during this postseason, Dan Devine will look for those X-factors most likely to wreak havoc over the next seven games.
(The phrase "Contribute to the chaos" comes from the song "Twin Size Mattress” by the band The Front Bottoms, which Dan likes a lot.)
San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard’s offense.
Two weeks ago, we’d have looked at this matchup and said that the 21-year-old Leonard’s primary contribution would come in the form of guarding Kobe Bryant, because that’s what the second-year small forward has become for Gregg Popovich — a Swiss Army knife stopper, the kind of defensive dampener you automatically line up on the opposing team’s top wing scorer with the expectation of a sharply reduced threat level from that point forward. But once Kobe ruptured his Achilles, the Lakers suddenly became a team devoid of perimeter panic-inducers, an offense predicated on Pau Gasol operating from the high post, Dwight Howard bulling in the low block and kick-outs to floor-spacing shooters who don’t profile as major worries in one-on-one and off-the-dribble situations.
Now, Leonard will see time on a variety of Lakers — a shift on Metta World Peace here, a little Steve Blake there, some Antawn Jamison sprinkled in — but he won’t be primarily occupied with locking down the opposition as he would be when matched up with someone like Bryant, Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony. That could free him up to play a larger role on the other end for the second-seeded Spurs ... which, surprising as it might seem, is something he can actually do, and might provide a welcome boost to a Spurs team heading into the playoffs with questions surrounding Tony Parker (who’s been both banged up and “awful” of late) and Manu Ginobili (who missed three weeks with a strained right hamstring before playing 12 nondescript minutes in San Antonio’s season finale).
After a pleasantly surprising rookie season on the offensive end, Leonard kept his sterling shooting percentages steady as a sophomore — 49.3 percent from the floor, 37.6 percent from 3, 46.9 percent from the corners last year, 49.4/37.4/43 this year — despite taking 122 more shots in six fewer games. (He’s also gotten to the line a bit more often in Year 2 and converted a higher percentage of his freebies.) He’s not a polished ball-handler or slasher yet, but he’s flashed an improved handle this year, and he’s capable of big scoring nights against good defenses — he had a season-high 26 against the Chicago Bulls back in February and was all-phases-brilliant in going toe-to-toe with Durant during an early-April loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. (While no one can seriously consider this year’s Lakers a “good” defense, they have shown signs of life since the All-Star break and since Bryant’s injury, thanks in large part to better paint protection from a resurgent Howard.)
He’s largely been an opportunistic scorer, looking for his own offense primarily in transition, which has accounted for nearly 24 percent of his possessions, according to Synergy Sports Technology’s game-charting data, and showcasing more savvy and feel as an off-ball cutter in half-court sets. But he’s also improved a bit as a spot-up shooter, which is vital in San Antonio’s drive-and-kick scheme, and, interestingly enough, he’s also had some success in so-called “clutch” time — when the game’s within five points in the final five minutes — albeit in limited opportunities. (Something to keep in mind, perhaps, if the Laker bigs blanket Tim Duncan and if longtime late-game options Parker and Ginobili are limited.)
The Lakers closed strong down the stretch, but they made the postseason by the skin of their teeth and will have to scrap like nobody’s business just to cover the known quantities in this matchup. An unexpected jolt from a relatively unknown one could be just what Pop needs to send them back to Hollywood in a hurry.
Los Angeles Lakers: “The Blake Mamba.”
Just 11 months ago, Lakers fans — some, not all, Lakers fans; the worst Lakers fans — were loading up behind their keyboards and calling for Steve Blake’s head on a pike. Now, they have to rely on him to be their primary perimeter creator, ball-handler and 3-point shooting threat. The world’s funny sometimes.
Since Bryant’s injury, Blake’s “usage percentage” — a measurement of how many team possessions end with a particular player taking a shot, earning free throws or turning the ball over — has nearly doubled, skyrocketing from 12.4 percent of L.A. possessions before to 23.8 percent over the last two games. With so much more of the Laker offense running through Gasol up top, Blake has become less a facilitator than an outlet and shot-taker, hoisting 36 attempts (including 20 3-pointers) in the last two games, the most he’s taken over any two-game stretch since March 2009. The resulting offense hasn’t been world-beating — the Lakers have scored an average of 96.2 points per 100 possessions over their last two, nearly 10 points-per-100 below their season average and well below even the Washington Wizards’ league-worst offensive efficiency mark. (Shockingly, the Laker offense has struggled without Kobe. Who’d have thunk it?)
But Blake’s willingness to fire — especially from deep, where he shot an excellent 42.1 percent this season — has helped keep defenses honest, opening up room for Gasol and Howard to below the foul line. Maintaining that spacing will be key for the Lakers to have any hope of consistently beating an excellent Spurs defense that finished third in the league in points allowed per possession and features legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate Duncan in the middle.
Even if, as Yahoo! Sports NBA columnist Marc J. Spears reported, injured starter Steve Nash is able to return to the lineup in time for Sunday’s Game 1, the Lakers will still need Blake to be a willing, conscience-less shooter to loosen up the Spurs’ D. (In other words, he needs that #mambamentality.) If he can get hot from long range, he could help L.A. hang with a clearly superior opponent; if he’s tentative or off-target, the Spurs will have an easier time loading up in the paint and, likely, making quick work of a Lakers team that did well to get this far but isn’t equipped to go any farther.
PREDICTION: Spurs in 5.
Eric Freeman’s Reputations Index
An NBA athlete can make great strides in the offseason, improve over the course of the 82-game schedule, and see his fortunes change due to a freak injury. Yet, even in a league where granular analysis reveals untold nuances in a single player’s game, the postseason still determines his legacy. A star can become a legend or be seen as lacking some necessary quality to win; a role player can lock down a lucrative local endorsement contract or search for a new home; a youngster can ascend to a new level of fame or fall into irrelevance. The Reputations Index is your guide to what’s at stake in each postseason series.
Tim Duncan: Some players have accomplished so much in their careers that their legacies are set, and Duncan is most certainly one of them. The only thing at stake for him in 2013 is what people think of his present abilities, and that’s where things get a little tricky. Playing just 30.1 minutes per game (actually a jump up from the previous two years), Duncan put forth one of his most efficient offensive and effective defensive seasons in recent memory. He’ll finish higher in the MVP vote than he has in some time, and he’ll deserve it.
However, that does not mean Duncan will return to his discussion among the best players in the game. While his light workload makes perfect sense over the regular season, it’s not what’s expected of stars in the postseason. That doesn’t mean Duncan has to play 40 minutes to matter, or that he’s not still great. It’s just that the public expects a lot of the best players in the league, and someone who doesn’t dominate in 35-plus minutes in the playoffs is unlikely to be mentioned among them.
Dwight Howard: The Lakers now belong to Howard. The loss of Kobe Bryant is a major problem for the team, but it also has the benefit of clarifying any uncertainty that came with having so many big-name players on the same team. Howard is now the center of the action, and the Lakers’ performance in this series will be seen as a reflection of his fit with the organization and his ability to lead the team in a world without Kobe.
Howard is not the most popular figure in the NBA these days, and so it’s likely that the Lakers loss most of us expect will not do much for his reputation. On the other hand, it’s also true that we haven’t seen Howard in this particular role very often in the past two seasons. Howard has been a distraction, a spectator, a limited participant, etc — not a star around which the rest of the team organizes itself. Watching him play with that responsibility, while not necessarily a good thing for the Lakers as currently constructed, could at least serve to remind us why Howard was so well regarded in the first place. It’s superficial, but also a potential way for him to start rebuilding his image.
Pau Gasol: It is fairly shocking to consider that Gasol was marginalized in the Lakers’ system only a few months ago. Since his return from a plantar fascia tear in March, Gasol has been his usual versatile self, serving primarily as a facilitator in the absence of Steve Nash and helping the Lakers’ offense function without Kobe. Gasol has talents possessed by few, if any, big men his size. And yet it’s also the case that he might be traded this summer because of the construction of this roster, regardless of the fact that he and Howard are proving they can play together.
If it’s not clear, I’m not entirely sure why the Lakers would want to trade Gasol, or why so many fans seem open to the idea. It seems to be an opinion affected by perspective rather than the facts of Gasol’s game, as if he were expendable primarily because he struggled to adjust in Mike D’Antoni’s first weeks as head coach. Playing well on a big stage — put another way, looking absolutely essential to the team structure — would make trading Gasol seem like the overreaction it is.
PREDICTION: Spurs in 6.
More first-round previews from Ball Don’t Lie: