No Kobe, no problem—yet. Last night the Lakers stomped the San Antonio Spurs, 91-86, at the Staples Center thanks to what can only be described as all the right things happening at all the right times. Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol crashed the boards when they needed to, Metta World Peace—the now-medical marvel—was aggressive and defensive, Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks stepped up to the plate, and Mike D’Antoni even looked like he was in prime helming condition. Oddly enough, D’Antoni projected after the All-Star break that the Lakers would need to go 20-8 to make the playoffs. Well, right now the Lakers are 19-8. And all they have left is a Wednesday finale against the Houston Rockets (45-35). Still, despite performing so well of late, the Lakers have a last-game scenario of finishing sixth, seventh, eighth and out of the playoffs entirely. The obvious obstacle, of course, is spearheading a playoff run without Bryant, who nearly single-handedly carried the team into postseason contention and is now out with an injured Achilles’ tendon.
After Saturday’s practice, Howard said he was ready to take up the mantle of being the team’s leader. He also said that the Lakers, though battling a daunting smattering of odds, are still gunning for number 16. “This team’s got to ride my back even though my back is still healing,” he said. “I feel I can do all things and take this team to the next level.”
Here are a few things that need to happen for Howard’s words to ring true:
1. Pau Gasol needs to facilitate. Gasol is not the juggernaut he used to be, but he’s still one of the best-passing big men in the league. As he showed Sunday night, he can pull the eyes off his smaller comrades-in-arms and feed them some nice open looks. Cue Jodie Meeks, Steve Blake, Antawn Jamison—and hopefully soon Steve Nash.
2. Howard needs to dominate. Carrying a team on one's back entails a lot of responsibility. Especially for a big man. Though he's been working hard on his free throws, Howard needs to bring his practice skills to game time. He also needs to keep crashing the offensive boards like he did against the Spurs. The best offense doesn't necessarily come from second-chance opportunities—shooting, missing, and then dunking or laying-up isn't the most efficient way to get buckets—but teams that lead in offensive rebounds come out on top more often than not. Rebounding dominance, in conjunction with his solid moves in the post, will make Howard the beast he was in Orlando.
3. The Steves need to really step up. I guess it's not just the Steves. It's the Steves and Meeks and Jamison. If Nash gets back anytime soon—read: when Nash gets back—he will finally have an open stage to perform. There will be no more awkwardness balancing the need for a true point guard with the need for the ball to always be in Bryant's hands. There's no option now. Nash, Meeks, Blake and Jamison have all shown that they're capable, but we have yet to see some real consistency. These players need to be able to catalyze the post offense, and when push comes to shove, work with the big men to hit those scrappy open jumpers.
4. Fill the defensive gap. The Lakers’ defense has been underwhelming all season long, ranking 20th in the NBA and allowing 106.9 points per 100 possessions. They have failed to rotate and lag in transition—both of which contribute to easy buckets for opposing teams. With Metta World Peace still recuperating (albeit playing a reserve role), the squad needs to find an answer to tighten up their otherwise porous defense. Howard needs to step up as the defensive anchor, and the other big men (Gasol, Earl Clark, World Peace) need to stay quick on their feet. Keeping the turnovers to a minimum would also help. The Lakers rank 25th in the league; they give the ball up an average of 15.1 times a game.
Last but not least, they have to keep keepin’ this guy happy.
And if the Lakers do snag a playoff spot, these things can't just happen on occasion. They need to become forces of habit. If that Spurs victory proved anything, it's that the Lakers can win without Kobe. There are just a lot of pieces that need to fall into place, all at the same time, for them to do so.
UPDATE 4/16/13: Lakers guard Steve Nash will not play in the season finale, after an MRI confirmed "several pre-existing issues" related to his hip and back injury.
Next Up: The Lakers host the Rockets on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. PT for their season finale.