Posted Apr 19, 2013 6:46 AM
He's ready for his close-up, Mr. DeMille.
The other team will have four players in its lineup that have been All-Stars in their careers. He can look around and count three other All-Stars in his own locker room.
But this is Dwight Howard's series.
Spurs vs. Lakers has plenty of history and drama. But Howard vs. Howard is really the best 1-on-1 matchup in the first round of the playoffs.
Can he follow up on the 2-0 close-out of the regular season without Kobe Bryant?
Can he prove that he's the leader he's always claimed to be?
Can he convince himself that he can be comfortable in the white-hot glare of Lakerdom and carry the torch into the next generation for the NBA's glamor franchise?
Oh yes. The Spurs will be there, too. Winners of 58 games and the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are the three-headed monster that doesn't ever seem to grow old or fade away.
However, since Parker sprained his ankle on March 1 and lost his rhythm, the Spurs have lost their spark and staggered down the stretch with a mediocre 12-10 record, including seven straight losses on the road. In addition, Ginobili is just now coming back from a strained hamstring, backup center Boris Diaw is out for the first round following surgery to remove a cyst on his spine and veteran swingman Stephen Jackson was waived.
Truth be told, once the Lakers belatedly locked up their spot in the playoffs on the final night of the season, the wounded Spurs were the matchup they preferred over Oklahoma City.
The underachieving Lakers still will be underdogs in the series. But it presents just the cracked-door opening and it provides Howard with just the opportunity to assume that team leadership role he's been clamoring for. In Hollywood fashion, he even got in a rehearsal to inspire his teammates, beating the Rockets on Wednesday night to clinch the No. 7 spot.
"It's 300 of us against all the Persians!" Howard said to a gaggle of TV cameras. "We got to look death in the eyes and say we don't care if we die! We go hard!
"Kobe is watching us at home. Dr. Buss is watching us up high! Let's let it out tonight! Everything we got! Everything! Leave it on the floor! Pau, put your big boy pants on! Dwight, hit your free throws! Jodie, hit those threes boy! Now let's get it! Now let's bring it in! Hoorah!"
Welcome to the Dwight Show.
1. Does size matter? It will have to for the Lakers to be able to pull off the upset. Howard and Pau Gasol must go to work on the inside.
2. Is the key to the Spurs Duncan or Parker? While the soon-to-be-37-year-old Duncan has turned back the clock to have a remarkable season, Parker is the key to making the offense go and stop penetration on defense.
3. Can Manu still be Manu? Put it this way: He'll try, because Ginobili only knows one way to play. But it's going to be a real test to keep him upright and in the lineup through June.
4. Whither Steve Nash? Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni expects his veteran point guard back in the lineup for the opener, which might only present a bigger problem if Parker drives by him constantly.
5. When do the Lakers miss Kobe the most? From the moment their feet hit the floor in the morning to the minute they climb back into bed at night.
They want to get the ball off the defensive glass and into Parker's hands so that he can make a sprint straight for the basket or find one of his many capable perimeter shooters for the best available shot. Coach Gregg Popovich wants quick decisions and the ball moving. When the quick shot isn't there, they can go back inside to Duncan, who is playing like he's turned the clock back a decade. The Spurs were in the top five for offensive efficiency all season until injuries hit late.
The top challenge for the Lakers is to apply pressure that gets the ball out of Parker's hands or funnel him into the paint where Howard can guard the rim.
Without Bryant, but with Nash back in the lineup, the Lakers can fill themselves up on a steady diet of pick and rolls where possible. But based on the success they had in the two big wins to close out the regular season, it is also practical and effective to put the ball into Pau Gasol's hands and let the big man go to work for himself or read and make dishes. It's taken them all season to get on the same page, but a Howard-Gasol offensive tandem can work in sync.
The Spurs have been running into Nash in the playoffs for years wearing different uniforms and they know they'd much rather give him the openings in their defense to try to score rather than let him get his teammates going.
When it ain't broke, don't fix it. Parker to Duncan has been working for years.
Howard's poor free-throw shooting means he can't finish, but he can be just as much a game-changer at the defensive end.
Second year forward Kawhi Leonard is a bubbling pot that could boil over onto the prime time scene as a scorer and defender.
Isn't Metta World Peace the definition of a wild card? Either he or Antawn Jamison must step up and have an impact.
This is the first-round series that everyone will be watching to see if the Spurs wobble. If Ginobili and Parker aren't both back at top form, they're vulnerable, but the Spurs still have enough to survive in six.
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