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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.

Records: Lakers 41-37 Blazers 33-44
Offensive ratings: Lakers 107.6 Blazers 106.1
Defensive ratings: Lakers 106.6 Blazers 108.9
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard
Blazers: Damian Lillard, Sasha Pavlovic, Victor Claver, LaMarcus Aldridge, Meyers Leonard
Injuries: Lakers: Steve Nash, Jordan Hill
Blazers: Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, J.J. Hickson, Elliot Williams

Blazers Blogs: Make sure you check out Portland Roundball Society for all of your Blazers news and analysis.

Keys to game: The Blazers are coming into tonight’s game with a wealth of injuries to some of their key players. Wesley Matthews has had some big games against the Lakers, Nicolas Batum has done a pretty job of defending Kobe over the years when he drew that assignment and J.J. Hickson’s motor could be a problem on the boards on any given night. While it’s never a good thing for an opponent to have injured players, the Lakers have caught the Blazers at the most opportune time considering the battle for 8th place they’re in with the Jazz and the fact that the Rose Garden has always been one of the most difficult places for the Lakers to travel to and get wins.

With all of that being said, this game is still no gimmie and they’ll have to execute on both ends of the floor. Defensively, keeping Damien Lillard out of the paint and close out on shooters. Portland hasn’t been shooting the ball particularly well from deep recently as they’re only at a .264 clip over their last five. Just to make it a point to show how bad they’ve been from 3-point range, that five game stretch includes a 13-23 performance against Utah — and they’re still shooting over 25 percent. But considering that they’re capable of an outlying performance like that, the Lakers cannot allow them to take open shots from deep to ensure that they’re not the next team to get burned by a bad shooting team. Outside of Lillard and shooters, the focal point of the defense should be on LaMarcus Aldridge. The Lakers have done fairly well on Aldridge in the previous three meetings, holding him to 20 points on 18 shots and only 4 rebounds per game. Both Pau and Dwight will have to be willing to close out on his mid range jumper and continue to keep him off the glass.

On the offensive end, the Lakers are going to have to play inside-out. With Hickson out, Meyers Leonard will get the start and won’t be able to hang with Dwight in one-on-one situations. Should Aldridge or Claver help off of their respective man, that will open things up for both Pau and Kobe. Speaking of Pau, it would be wise to continue to feed him in the post as it seems as if his confidence has been rising lately — and should the Lakers get into the post season, having a confident Pau will be awfully beneficial for this team. On the perimeter, Kobe is likely going to be guarded by the likes of Sasha Pavlovic or Victor Claver, and he should be able to exploit those match ups and find the open man should the Blazers double off of him. I’d like to see lots of off-ball movement from the other wing guys and make this banged up Blazers team work as hard as possible on the defensive end.

I do expect the Lakers to win tonight, which would be the first sweep of a back-to-back on the season. It would be nice if they can put Portland away early and give some of the key guys a break, but a win regardless of how it happens is essential if they want to make the playoffs.

Where you can watch: 7:30 pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

Records: Lakers 39-36 Grizzlies 51-24
Offensive ratings: Lakers 107.7 Grizzlies 105.2
Defensive ratings: Lakers 106.6 Grizzlies 100.8
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard
Grizzlies: Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Tayshaun Prince, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol
Injuries: Lakers: Steve Nash, Metta World Peace, Jordan Hill
Grizzlies: Tony Wroten

The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers are coming off one of their best and complete wins of the season over the Dallas Mavericks. The Shot distribution between their three main guys — Kobe, Dwight and Pau — was about where you’d like it to be. Kobe had 18, Dwight 13 and Pau 12, and they recorded 23, 24 and 14 points respectively. Instead of increasing his shot volume, Kobe did other things, and he did them very well. Kobe finished with 11 assists and 11 rebounds. Furthermore, other guys stepped up huge on a night where they were down to pretty much a seven-man rotation. Steve Blake had a solid night hitting his spot up jump shots as they became available and Earl Clark had a great night off the bench with 17 points and 12 rebounds. He was much more aggressive than he had been in recent weeks, and after seeing a few shots fall, seemed more confident in the game against the Mavericks than he had looked in the whole month of March.

The Grizzlies Coming in: The Grizzlies come in playing some good, but not their best basketball of the season. They’re coming into tonight’s game in Los Angeles with a four game winning streak with some decent wins. Their last game was in the Rose Garden where they won by 18 over the Trailblazers. Before that, they defeated the Spurs (minus Ginobili) at home, the Timberwolves on the road and the Rockets at home. In those four games, the Grizzlies were awfully stingy on the defensive end of the floor, only allowing 86.5 points per game during their four-game winning streak. On the offensive end of the floor, they’ve been playing a very calculated game and doing a great job of taking care of the ball, turning the ball over fewer than 12 times per game.

Grizzlies Blogs: Make sure you check out 3 Shades of Blue for all of your Grizzlies news and analysis. They do a great job over there.

Keys to game: For tonight’s game, the Lakers are really going to have to focus on rebounding the ball. The Lakers are third in the league in rebounds per game at 44.8 per game as a team, but the Grizzlies rebound much better at a much higher rate. The Grizzlies have the second highest rebound percentage (percentage of all rebounds grabbed per game) and have the league’s second highest rebound differential. So the Lakers may grab more per game, but there are more opportunities to grab rebounds in games that Lakers play in. In the two previous games that the Lakers and Grizzlies faced off in, the Grizzlies won the rebound battle by an average margin of 10 boards a contest — so crashing the boards against the likes of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol is going to be crucial.

Offensively, ball movement and player movement is going to be crucial as the Lakers don’t have a legitimate advantage in any one-on-one situation. Marc and Randolph match up with the Lakers front court of Pau and Howard as any team in the league, as they’re big, physical guys who aren’t afraid of contact and are disciplined within the scheme of the team defensive principles. On the perimeter, the Grizzlies now have two guys who they can rotate on Kobe — and they have to be two of the guys who have been the most successful on Bean over the years. The Grizzlies got rid of Rudy Gay and brought in Prince, whose length has bothered Kobe’s ability to get off his jumper for years. Tony Allen is one of the league’s best on ball defenders, mainly due to his physical nature, strength and lateral quickness. With every great defender, Kobe has had some great games against both of these guys, but the Lakers can’t game plan hoping that Kobe goes off. Guys like Antawn Jamison and Earl Clark are going to have to have big games by their standards for the Lakers to be successful as they’re the two best moving off the ball.

Defensively, keeping Mike Conley out of the paint is going to be crucial. Without Nash starting, the Lakers might be able to do a better job tonight as Blake is a slightly better on ball defender — and definitely more tenacious than Nash ever has been. And if they can’t keep Conley out of the paint, Kobe (and the rest of the perimeter defenders) is going to have to have another good night staying disciplined off the ball. Darius wrote about Kobe’s off the ball defense in Dallas, and the Lakers are going to need a repeat performance from Bean — who has been a good defender when he’s wanted to be. Outside of Conley and staying home on shooters, both Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph can hurt the Lakers anywhere from the rim to 15 feet out, so both Pau and Dwight will have to work hard and will have their hands full all night.

Where you can watch: 7:30 pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

The Lakers were able to come away with a huge 20-point victory against the Dallas Mavericks on a night that largely belonged to ex-Laker Shaquille O’Neal. The 101-81 was a performance that brought about nostalgia, frustration due to the rare glimpse at this team’s potential, and smiles to the faces of Lakers fans and legends everywhere.

Before getting into the game, it must be mentioned that it was great to see Shaq’s jersey retirement. Kobe’s video, Phil’s speech, Jeanie’s speech, Shaq’s speech, and Shaq’s jersey being unveiled with the Superman theme song being played in the background — all really cool and fun to catch. I did notice that Shaq is the first Laker to have his jersey retired with the new design, essentially ushering in a new generation of Lakers greats. Seeing Shaq’s jersey hanging up there with the likes of other Laker big men like Kareem and Wilt is a testament to how great and consistent this franchise has been throughout not only the course of my lifetime, but the lifetime of my father and will likely continue through the lifetimes of our children. While Dr. Buss is no longer with us, Shaq’s jersey, and those that were already hanging, will be a everlasting reminder of what he was able to accomplish as an owner and the standard that this organization will strive to live up to — and now, Shaq is forever immortalized as a part of that Forum Blue and Golden Standard.

Of course, there was also a basketball game played. It was a game that many felt was a must-win for this Lakers team if they still wanted to consider themselves in the hunt for the 8th spot out West. Not only did the Lakers win, we got and idea of how good this team could have been, and probably should have been all season. Here are a few observations from tonight’s game:

  • Kobe Bryant played a brilliant basketball game. He set the tone for the game early, looking to attack the rim and looking for his teammates. He picked his spots, found open teammates, and saw a couple of jump shots fall early that got him into a good rhythm. While some of the other guys weren’t knocking down the open looks he got for them (Steve Blake, Earl Clark and Antawn Jamison all missed open looks after kickouts or swing passes from Kobe in the first quarter), Kobe continued to look for them throughout the game. Kobe finished the first quarter with one assist, and finished the game with 11. He also recorded 11 rebounds and 23 points. Kobe needed 18 shots to get his 23 points, but there were very little qualms with his shot selection. A few of his misses came at the end of the shot clock, and a couple of them were just Kobe being Kobe, but for the most part, he was on top of his game offensively. And even with a triple double, the most impressive part of Kobe’s game was the work he put in defensively. It was one of the rare nights over the last three or so years where he was keyed in both on and off the ball — and the defense as a whole looked a whole lot better because of it. Kobe wasn’t caught sinking into the paint looking to play free safety while loosing his man for open looks on the perimeter. Instead, he played helpside from two passes away, and rotated over to his man when the ball was being swung back to his side. He had a the huge block on Brandon Wright who was looking to dunk and picked off a few passes. All in all, this was one of the best games for Kobe this season, and he nearly played every second. It was hard not to expect a huge night from Bean on Shaq’s night, and he definitely delivered.
  • The starting front court of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol both showed up big for the Lakers tonight as well. The two combined for 38 points and 22 rebounds. Howard finished with a solid 24 and 12 line — and in Shaq-like fashion — he hit his free throws when they counted. When the game was still in doubt with just over three minutes left to play in the 4th, the Mavs went to the Hack-a-Howard strategy and Howard made them pay, going 6-8 from the line during that stretch and helped the Lakers extend their lead instead of watching it crumble like similar situations this season. Pau was phenomenal defensively. The Spaniard was assigned the tough task of defending Dirk Nowitzki, and essentially did a great job on him. Along with Earl Clark, they were able to crowd Dirk for the most part and not allow him to get off quick shots on the catch. Clark struggled a bit with staying on his feet during those Dirk pump fakes, but Pau did a fantastic job staying home and forcing either a pass to a lesser scoring threat or forcing a tough jump shot over a 7-footer’s arms. Dirk finished with 11 points (!) and needed 13 shots (!) to get those 11 points. Dirk hit a couple of tough jumpers, but there are nothing but good things to say about how Pau and Clark defended the German and his glorious beard.
  • Speaking of Clark, it was nice to see him have a big game after three consecutive nights without recording a point. With about three minutes left to play in the 3rd quarter, OJ Mayo drained a three pointer to cut the Lakers lead to five after it had been pushed to 16 only four minutes before. After a D’Antoni timeout, Kobe missed a 3-pointer and Clark grabbed the offensive rebound and scored. 7-point lead. On the next possession, Clark drilled a 3-pointer. 10-point lead. On the next possession, Earl Clark dropped a dime to Jodie Meeks. 12-point lead. In a three-minute stretch to end the third quarter, Clark scored five points, grabbed two rebounds, recorded an assist and a block. More importantly, he gave the Lakers the momentum back going into the fourth quarter. I can’t emphasize how much his energy was needed on a night that the Lakers were playing short-handed and with guys playing heavy minutes. It was nice to see him have a great game, he needed it more than anyone else. His 17 points12 rebounds and five blocks are all highs for him in the last 20 games.

It was a great night of basketball on a historic occasion. The Lakers were able to keep pace with the Jazz and distance themselves a bit from the Mavericks. While the playoff race is far from over with seven games left — five against teams that are playoff bound — tonight was a huge win and something that can be built upon. Once again, congratulations to Shaq. We were spoiled for the eight years he was a Laker, we’ll never see another quite like him.

Tonight’s win in Minnesota wasn’t an easy one to watch. While the 120-117 win is valuable in terms of this team holding off the Mavericks and making the post season, it isn’t exactly the kind of performance you’d like to be seeing heading into the post season either.

The first half of the game was eerily sloppy. They turned the ball over at an alarming rate, 15 times in the first 24 minutes. When they weren’t turning the ball over, they were playing some decent basketball, running the offense through their bigs Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol who combined for 21 points and 18 rebounds on eight-for-13 shooting. Kobe, although turnover happy, was in facilitator mode early and often in the first half and was the last of the Lakers starters to record any points. Antawn Jamison also came off the bench and had a productive first half with 12 points on 4-6 shooting and four rebounds.

Defensively, the Lakers were much improved from their last two outings, but still left much to be desired. Bryant seemed a bit more locked into running his guy off the line and closing out on shooters. They also did a better job of keeping guards (Rubio, Barea) out of the paint in the first half. When the perimeter defense did break down, Howard and, to some extent, Gasol both did a great job of protecting the rim. The ‘Wolves shot 17-of-47 in the first half, which is just above a .360 clip. A lot of Minnesota’s missed shots were a open looks that just didn’t fall, but regardless, the Lakers defense did seem much improved on the night.

In the third quarter, the Lakers played a much cleaner game. The first two possessions of the third were turnovers, but they only finished the quarter with three total turnovers. The offense moved from playing inside-out to Kobe taking over (16 points in the 3rd), but the lack of turnovers allowed for a 41-point third and pushed the lead from four to 12 going into the fourth — and would have remained the same had Howard and Gasol received more touches.

However, the defensive struggles returned for the Lakers in the third, and would eventually spill over to the fourth. Barea and Rubio started getting into the paint while Dante Cunningham and Chase Budinger continually found themselves wide open — a 17-footer for Cunningham and the corner three for Budinger — were what continued to give the Lakers issues.

Regardless, the lead stayed at about 3-possession deficit for much of the second half. But in Laker-Like fashion, the Lakers couldn’t hold their lead and were a non-called foul on a Ricky Rubio desperation three away from seeing the game go into overtime after pushing their lead to 14 points. In the last six minutes of the game, the Lakers gave up 25 points and lost the rebound battle 16-3. SIXTEEN TO THREE. And while it took the Wolves 23 shots to get their 25 points in the final six minutes, the Lakers afforded them nine extra possessions with two turnovers and giving up seven offensive rebounds. Nicola Pekovic, Budinger and Rubio all scored nine points in the final six minutes while the Lakers as a team shot three-for-eight in that same time.

Of course, the ‘Wolves explored the Hack-A-Dwight option for a full minute and cut at 12-point lead to seven during that minute span, but the Lakers never really regained control of the game.

It was an ugly win, but a win nonetheless. They’ll have another opportunity to prove that they can win on the road tomorrow night in Milwaukee with a Bucks team that poses a lot of match up problems for this Lakers game. It’ll be interesting to see how they respond after an ugly win despite a few very good individual performances.