Very few people saw this situation coming. At the end of March, the chances that the Los Angeles Lakers would have a great shot at the playoffs, let alone the seventh seed, appeared unlikely. It also wasn't easy to believe the San Antonio Spurs would falter down the stretch by losing seven of their last 10 games.
But that's the reality. Going 8-1 in their last nine, the Lakers rolled down the stretch without Steve Nash, capturing a playoff spot without their aging point guard and then without Kobe Bryant. Los Angeles visits San Antonio on Sunday to open their playoff series with the Spurs, and Bryant't guarantee of a playoff berth was granted.
With two games to go in the regular season, it was the very same Spurs team that the Lakers faced in the wake of Bryant's Achilles tear. Los Angeles pulled out a 91-86 win in front of their home crowd behind a dominating 26-point, 17-rebound game from Dwight Howard and by Steve Blake outplaying Tony Parker.
Blake scored 23 points and helped chase Parker around for an ugly 1-for-10 shooting performance.
Parker's health might be a serious issue. He was held out of the Spurs' second-to-last game because of his ongoing ankle issues and returned for the season finale with another poor shooting performance in a 108-95 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Manu Ginobili's production has likewise been reduced as he's battled his own leg injury.
Los Angeles received some better news on its own injury front leading into Sunday afternoon's game. Steve Nash is expected to be in the starting lineup after missing eight games because of a back, hip and hamstring problem. He'll join Blake, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol and Howard in the starting five.
Gasol could very well be the key for the Lakers, because the opportunity for Los Angeles to challenge the Spurs' frontline with two bigs changes things a bit. Los Angeles' offense has gone through Gasol in the absence of Nash and Bryant, and his 6.6 assists per game in the last 10 outings provides evidence that it's working -- the record indicates as much as well.
Nash, D'Antoni face familiar foe
Nash and coach Mike D'Antoni have their own history with the Spurs. With the Suns, the duo lost three times to the Spurs in the playoffs in 2005, 2007 and 2008. Nash got revenge in 2010 as his Phoenix squad beat the Spurs, but that was under coach Alving Gentry.
D'Antoni on how much Spurs have beaten him over the years: "I've had therapy."— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) April 21, 2013
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Odds: The Spurs opened as 8.5-point favorites.