Imagine this: Vegas had a prop bet on the Lakers facing a first round sweep after squeaking into the post season. The Lakers would be playing without 55 percent of their scoring on the season, the starting power forward would be playing with a torn ligament and the starting off guard would be the D-League MVP. This team, which would have a starting five that has played a grand total of two minutes together all season, would have to try to slow down the San Antonio Spurs with a three-man core that has been playing together for almost a decade. How much would you have put down on the odds of this scenario happening?
As I write these words, the Boston Celtics are holding a 12-point lead, and seem to be holding off a 1st round season sweep of their own against the New York Knicks. After three games, it didn’t seem like the Celtics had a glimmer of hope of winning a game this series, yet J.R. Smith was suspended for a game and Carmelo Anthony just hasn’t been able to find a rhythm. I’m sitting here trying to convince myself that this Lakers team — as depleted as they are — can find a way to be competitive in this Game 4 at Staples Center in front of their fans. Unfortunately, that seems as unlikely as the scenario mentioned above.
There were such high hopes and expectations coming into this season. Mitch Kupchak put together one of the most incredible rosters we had ever seen on paper. He did the impossible by bringing in Steve Nash. Then did the even more impossible by trading away a center who would not log a single minute in 2013 for this generations best. Even the minor move for Jodie Meeks was a great signing… on paper.
Problems would ensue, however.
The Lakers failed to win a preseason game. Red flags were ignored. Steve Nash broke his leg. Mike Brown was fired. Phil Jackson was (allegedly) snubbed from the coaching position. Mike D’Antoni was hired. The Lakers lost a whole lot more games than they won, and in the midst of losing (and the probably cause for a lot of those losses) more core guys missed time due to injuries. Pau had knee problems. Jordan Hill had back spasms, Chris Duhon did as well. After the spasms, Hill tore his labrum. Pau had a concussion. Dwight had a partially torn labrum. Steve Blake had a stomach thing. Pau then had Plantar fascists. Kobe sprained his ankle. Ron tore his meniscus. Nash pulled his hammy. Kobe ruptured his Achilles and then the season was over.
There were 14 injuries during the regular season with a total of 175 games missed from everyone who went down. As bewildering as the regular season was, the Lakers bad luck continued into the post season with Meeks, Blake, Nash, and Artest all down with an injury going into Game 4 — and Gasol will be playing with a torn ligament in one of his fingers.
How do you preview a game that is notionally a foregone conclusion?
The Lakers will start Darius Morris, Andrew Goudelock, Earl Clark, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard in what is likely the last game of the season for a Lakers team that suffered through setback after setback. The Morris-Goudelock backcourt wasn’t as bad as many would have expected in their first stint together as back court mates, but there was a lot left to be desired as the Lakers suffered their largest home playoff defeat in Game 3 after a 31-point loss. While the two combined for 44 points, neither could keep Tony Parker out of the paint, where has lived for the whole series.
Tim Duncan has had a great series, the interior defense of both Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard have been questioned, but they’ve largely been left out to dry by the poor perimeter defenders allowing penetration, freeing up Duncan and other bigs after rotations. The case was most evident in Game 3, once again, with Morris and Goudelock struggling to stay in front of Parker and Co. The Spurs had 30 team assists, and will be looking to move the ball in similar fashion tonight to close out the series.
For the Lakers, a steady diet of Gasol and Howard aren’t going to win it. The Spurs had packed the paint with more fervor as the series has progressed and the consistency of perimeter shooting has decreased. The Lakers have shot just over 25 percent from three in this series (15-for-57) and will need to see the three-ball fall and a much higher rate should the Lakers make this one competitive. There really hasn’t been an opportunity for either Howard or Gasol to get into a real groove with the Spurs having four guys at any given time with one foot in the paint.
On the defensive end, it’s all about keeping Tony Parker on the perimeter and out of the lane where he has been dangerous, creating scoring opportunities for himself and others. The Lakers defenders have worked hard in this series, but the hard work hasn’t exactly been within the realm of the Lakers scheme, which is understandable considering the fact that at least three rotation players have been out in each game this series, and five will be out in the finale.
We can’t go into this one expecting a Lakers win, but we can go into this one expecting this team to work hard on each end of the floor and to go down fighting for one more game. No Lakers team has ever been swept in the first round of the playoffs, and if you’re suiting up tonight, you don’t want to be a part of the cast that is the first to end the season in that fashion. While I would love to see the Lakers come away with a victory in this one (I’ll actually be in attendance tonight), just seeing them going down fighting until the very last possession will be good enough for me.
D’Antoni can only ask these guys to play tough, play smart and to play hard. This season has been a disaster, but what is potentially the last game of the season doesn’t have to be.