The Lakers held off the Spurs 91-88 at the Staples Center on Sunday, improving to 44-37 and maintaining control of their playoff destiny. The Spurs fell to 58-22 and are now a full game back of the No. 1 seed in the West.
1. Pride check passed, with flying colors
Kobe Bryant's season-ending Achilles tear offered the remaining Lakers the cover to write off their last two games and call off the playoff chase. Had they laid an egg against the Spurs or Rockets, both playoff-bound teams with high-powered offenses, they would have been spared much of the media's savaging. The Lakers just aren't "the Lakers" without Bryant, and any expectation that L.A. might make a little noise in the postseason exited the building as ira franchise player limped off last Friday night. Put simply: Losing out would have been understandable and any result better than that would be treated as found money.
With that in mind, Sunday's win was a downright plucky performance from the Lakers, who did benefit from Tony Parker struggling and playing limited minutes. Virtually every item on the checklist assembled here at The Point Forward on Saturday was checked off on Sunday, none more important than the emergence of Steve Blake, who scored 23 points on 8-for-16 shooting and 4-for-8 from three-point range. That marked the most points the pass-first Blake has scored since April 2010. His outburst registered with maximum impact in a choppy contest that saw both teams struggle to score throughout.
The Lakers found the second perimeter weapon they needed to compensate in Bryant's absence, but it wasn't Metta World Peace, Jodie Meeks or even Darius Morris. Instead, Antawn Jamison hit for 15 points, including three three-pointers, his most prolific outside shooting game in nearly a month. Together, that was enough to supplement a solid, No. 1 option type of night from Dwight Howard, who finished with game highs of 26 points and 17 rebounds, and managed to survive another episode of Hack-a-Howard from Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
The smooth, effortless Spurs offensive attack that we're accustomed to seeing simply never showed up, with Parker shooting just 1-for-10 and the Spurs as a whole making only 37.1 percent. The San Antonio Express-News reported that Popovich explained his decision to sit Parker down the stretch by saying that his All-Star point guard was "playing awful."
For all the worrying about the Thunder's sometimes inconsistent play, the Spurs' offensive attack isn't exactly entering the postseason on a high note. San Antonio is fourth in scoring at 103.3 points, and yet it's failed to crack 100 points in seven of eight games and has failed to top 90 in four of those games. Of course, that streak coincides perfectly with Manu Ginobili's absence because of a hamstring injury; Parker has also played 30 minutes or more in just three of the last eight games. We'll see if those struggles -- relative to their usual high standard -- are enough to make the Spurs a trendy upset pick over the next week. Probably not, but you never know how and when the NBA intelligentsia is going to overreact..
2. The last time The Point Forward checked in on L.A.'s playoff odds, last Monday, we concluded that the Lakers needed to finish 4-1 to give themselves a shot to make the postseason. Sunday marked L.A.'s fourth consecutive victory, one that strongly swung its race with the Jazz for the West's No. 8 seed in its favor. The 44-37 Lakers and 42-38 Jazz now have a combined three games left. Here are the remaining scenarios.
Lakers beat Rockets --> Lakers in
Lakers lose to Rockets and Jazz lose to Timberwolves or Grizzlies --> Lakers in
Lakers lose to Rockets and Jazz beat Timberwolves and Grizzlies --> Jazz in
L.A.'s magic number is now one. A Lakers win or one Jazz loss and L.A. advances to the postseason, where it will likely face the Thunder, lead the Spurs by one game and own the tiebreaker. After battling for months to get into the playoffs, the Lakers could clinch the No. 8 seed as soon as Monday night, when the Jazz face the Timberwolves in Minnesota. If the Lakers lose their finale to the Rockets on Wednesday and the Jazz win out, both teams would finish 44-38 and Utah would advance to the postseason by virtue of a tiebreaker.
It's small consolation in the face of losing Bryant to a serious, potentially career-altering injury, but the Lakers accomplished exactly what they needed to over the last seven days to avoid the ignominy of a lottery trip. Defeating the Spurs without Bryant was surely one of the most satisfying victories of the season for coach Mike D'Antoni and his players.
Meanwhile, the race for the West's No. 1 seed breaks down like this for the 59-21 Thunder and 58-22 Spurs. Oklahoma City can clinch the top spot as soon as Monday night.
Thunder beat Kings or Bucks --> Thunder in
Spurs lose to Warriors or Timberwolves --> Thunder in
Thunder lose to Kings and Bucks and Spurs beat Warriors and Timberwolves --> Spurs in
Reminder: The Lakers are 1-3 against the Thunder this season, with two of those losses coming by double digits. Oklahoma City also eliminated L.A. in the 2012 Western Conference semifinals.
3. Bryant underwent successful surgery on his Achilles Saturday and is essentially bed-bound during the early stages of his recuperation. That didn't stop him from posting messages on Twitter before and after the game.