Kobe-less Lakers battle battered Spurs

The Spurs are battered and the Lakers are without their star. Who will come out on top?

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — The promises, speculation and worry are finally over, which sets up another set of obstacles for the Lakers and Spurs to overcome. The 2013 NBA Playoffs have arrived and the slate is clean for the No. 2 and No. 7 seeded teams in the Western Conferences — especially in Los Angeles — but the pressure has been ratcheted up to ear-splitting volume.
San Antonio has been a lock to make the playoffs since the beginning of the season, while the Lakers — everybody’s chic preseason choice to waltz to the Finals — had to go down to the wire to just ensure postseason participation.
The Lakers won’t have their best player and team leader — sorry, no Kobe Bryant return from the hospital bed miracles this time — but they’ll still put two stars on the floor every night in Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. If Steve Nash can overcome his ailments, make that three. If that isn’t enough to at least make it a great series with a great team, then the Lakers simply just don’t belong as title contenders.
The Spurs' task was made much easier when Bryant’s Achilles’ tendon ruptured against Golden State late in the season. Assuming Tony Parker (left ankle) and Manu Ginobli (right hamstring) are sufficiently recovered from their injuries, the Spurs trio trumps the Lakers.
Ginobli — while not as quick as he was before he started getting hurt on a regular basis — is certainly still able to hit shots, handle the ball and play the type of defense coach Gregg Popovich needs to coach the Spurs to a fifth ring. And it sets up a quick series triumph for the Spurs, a team looking for its fifth NBA championship.
But without any of their Big Three, the Spurs are likely toast against a Lakers team that went 20-8 down the stretch to claim the No. 7 seed.
That, however, is why playoff basketball is such fun to watch — unpredictability.
With a healthy Bryant starring every night, the Lakers would have been a much more dangerous team, with Gasol, Howard and Nash performing their ancillary roles.
Or would they?
We’ll find out during this series — which opens Sunday in San Antonio — but it’s not necessarily set in stone that the Lakers would have an easier time with or without Kobe.
Now, Howard has done what he’s said he would do if given the chance — step up and take control of what was undeniably Kobe’s team. The offense is often run right through Gasol, one of the best passers in the game. And Steve Blake has given more offense lately than Nash has been able to with his assortment of injuries.
And the Lakers have a real chance to advance to the second round — without Kobe Bryant able to do anything but help coach the team.

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