LAL Round Up: Regular Season Finale

San Antonio Spurs v Los Angeles LakersWith L.A.’s entire season coming down to one final game against Houston, we get you ready with a comprehensive breakdown – it’s long, but you’ve been warned – of related topics:

NOTES ON THE ROCKETS (LAL vs. HOU, 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday)
- When Houston beat the Lakers 125-112 in the last meeting on January 8, neither Dwight Howard nor Pau Gasol played. Robert Sacre started at center and Metta World Peace at power forward against a Rockets team that’s thin up front (lots on Omer Asik’s shoulders). LAL should be better able to punish Houston inside on Wednesday, as the offense will run through Howard and Gasol, the two also intent upon protecting the rim on the other end.
- Houston ranks first in the league in points per game (106.1) and has netted at least 115 points in 23 games this year (20-3 record). L.A. held the Spurs to 86 points on Sunday.
- James Harden has been terrific all season, turning into a true superstar that ranks fifth in the NBA in scoring (25.9 points on 44 percent shooting) and 23rd in assists (5.9 per game), with LeBron James (7.3, 11th) and Kobe Bryant (6.0, 21st) the only non point guards ahead of him.
- Chandler Parsons has increased his scoring average from his rookie year (9.5) to 15.4 points per game, improving generally and also playing eight more minutes per game. He missed five April games with a calf strain, but has played the last two, scoring 24 points with seven assists in Monday’s loss at Phoenix.
- Carlos Delfino is averaging 17 points, five boards and two dimes vs. LAL in two games this season, finding himself open from three-point range far too often for LAL’s liking, averaging four made triples per game.
- Greg Smith has started at power forward for the last nine games (nine points, five boards in 21 minutes). He had a season-high 21 points against LAL in the Dec. 4 meeting, but will have Howard and Gasol to deal with on Wednesday.
- Fellow rookie Terrence Jones has seen the floor in seven of eight April games after playing sparingly (11 appearances) in beginning of the year. Jones is averaging 9.4 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 2.1 blocks in 24.5 minutes in those contests.
- Houston ranks second in the league in threes made (10.6 per game) and have three players in the top 20 (Harden: 175, Delfino: 158, Parsons: 150); LAL are at 4th (making about nine per game). A big part of L.A.’s defensive game plan is to run the Rockets off the three-point line, which is easier said than done with the penetration abilities of Harden and Jeremy Lin.

With just two nights left of basketball before the playoff seedings are set, we laid out several scenarios that are yet to be determined for those eager to tune into the action:

(1.) If Utah loses at Memphis, the Lakers would be locked into at least the No. 8 seed, even with a loss to Houston.
(2.) If the Lakers defeat Houston, they would pass the Rockets and move into the No. 7 seed.
(3.) If both the Lakers and Jazz win, the Lakers would be the No. 7 seed, the Rockets No. 8 and Utah out.
(4.) If Golden State wins at Portland, they are the No. 6 seed, which the Lakers cannot reach even if the Warriors lose (GSW are two up in the loss column with one to play).
(5.) If Golden State loses at Portland and Houston beats the Lakers, Houston is the No. 6 seed (they have the tiebreaker over GSW).

At the top of the standings, Oklahoma City clinched the No. 1 seed, and San Antonio the No. 2 on Monday night. Meanwhile, Denver has secured at least the No. 3 or No. 4 seed, and can lock up the No. 3 spot by beating Phoenix at home on Wednesday. The Clippers could get the No. 3 seed with a Denver loss and two wins (vs. Portland, at Sacramento), and would get at worst the No. 4 seed with a Denver win or at least one loss. Memphis is locked into the No. 5 seed, but can get home court over the Clippers with a win over Utah and at least one Clippers loss. Memphis cannot catch Denver, however, since the Nuggets own the tiebreaker between the two and are a game up with one to play.

NASH OUT AGAIN: For the ninth consecutive game (if you don’t count 1:48 of action to start the game at Sacramento on March 30), the Lakers will be without Steve Nash. They could certainly use his playmaking especially in Bryant’s absence, but his hamstring/hip/back just aren’t ready for game action. LAL has managed to go 7-1 without Nash, running the offense through Gasol and Howard and giving Steve Blake a bigger perimeter role in the absence of both Nash and Bryant against San Antonio.

MINUTE DISTRIBUTION WITHOUT KOBE: With Kobe recovering from Achilles surgery on Saturday, here’s how the minutes (rounded to a whole number) were distributed in Bryant’s (and Steve Nash’s) absence:
Blake: 36; Meeks: 36; MWP: 29; Gasol: 40; Howard: 36; Morris: 20; Jamison: 20; Clark: 19; Duhon: 4.

The main beneficiary of burn with Kobe out was Darius Morris, who did not play vs. Golden State in the prior game before getting 20 minutes (1 for 6 FG’s, 4 rebs, 4 asts, 1 blk) against the Spurs. Jodie Meeks saw his minutes go up from 22 minutes vs. GSW to 36 vs. SAS.

Lakers athletic trainer Gary Vitti said that minutes aren’t necessarily connected to an injury like the Achilles tear suffered by Kobe. With that said, it’s remarkable to see how many career minutes Bryant has played between the regular and playoff seasons (and that’s not counting his Olympic and World Championships runs). Here are the all-time leaders in hoops playing time:

1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 66,297 (57,446 regular season, 8,851 playoffs)
2. Karl Malone: 62,759 (54,852 regular season, 7,907 playoffs)
3. Jason Kidd: 55,900 (50,059 regular season, 5,841 playoffs)
4. Wilt Chamberlain: 55,418 (47,859 regular season, 7,559 playoffs)
5. John Stockton: 54,162 (47,764 regular season, 6,398 playoffs)
6. Elvin Hayes: 54,160 (50,000 regular season, 4,160 playoffs)
7. Kobe Bryant: 54,031 (45,390 regular season, 8,641 playoffs)
8. John Havlicek: 53,331 (46,471 regular season, 6,860 playoffs)
9. Reggie Miller: 52,927 (47,619 regular season, 5,308 playoffs)
10. Kevin Garnett: 52,604 (47,783 regular season, 4,821 playoffs)

BLAKE UP to 11th IN THE NBA FROM 3: In the last three games, Steve Blake has climbed up eight spots on the NBA’s three-point shooting percentage list, reaching his current slot of No. 11. He drained 4 of 8 3’s against both Golden State and San Antonio and two of three at Portland to push his season mark to 42.8 percent. One of the 10 players shooting better on the season is his teammate Steve Nash, who’s at 43.8 percent. Blake is a good three-point shooter for his career, at 39.0 percent overall, but was way down last year, converting only 33.5 percent. In his first season in L.A. (2010-11), he hit 37.8 percent from downtown. In April, Blake is averaging 11.0 points, 5.0 boards and 3.6 assists; his season high in points (23) came last game.

Los Angeles Lakers v Houston RocketsHOWARD TAKES ON CHALLENGE SANS KOBE: We expected Howard to have a big day with Bryant out against the Spurs, and he certainly delivered, scoring 26 points on 9 of 15 FG’s and 8 of 17 FT’s, plus a game-high 17 rebounds with three blocks and two steals. Expect similar digits against the Rockets, as Howard’s intent upon showing his ability to lead to the team. He has repeatedly stated that the team simply needs to “play hard” to win, acknowledging that it starts with him. In April, he’s averaging 21.6 points on 65 percent shooting.

SHOOTING ABERATION FROM GASOL: A 26-point, 11-board, 10-assist triple-double in the win over Golden State pushed Pau Gasol’s averages in six April games to 19.3 points, 10.2 rebounds and 6.7 assists on 60.5 percent field goals. He had at least 22 points & shot at least 60 percent in three straight contests, and was averaging over seven assists per game since Nash went out at Sacramento. As such, his can’t-buy-a-bucket struggle against San Antonio (3 for 17) was a surprise and an aberration. The Spaniard did hit the glass for 16 window cleans, matching his season high, and blocked three shots, drawing praise from coach Mike D’Antoni and his teammates for finding a way to help. Expect him to return to form on Wednesday, especially against a Rockets team lacking the size of San Antonio, who defended him with Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan.

HOWARD HALTS HIS REBOUNDING SLOW DOWN: In part due to recent foul trouble (at least a little bit) and Gasol’s emergence on the glass, Howard had slowed his role from a rebounding perspective until busting out with 17 boards against the Spurs. After grabbing at least 15 in five straight games, he had been averaging only 6.7 in his last four games, including seven against the Warriors in 38 minutes on Friday. One thing that’s been up is his scoring, as he’s hit 20+ in six of eight contests, thanks in part to Gasol’s lobs and better free throw shooting. But speaking of his rebounding…

HOWARD TO BECOME YOUNGEST TO 9,000 REBOUNDS: L.A.’s center enters Wednesday’s game against Houston with 8,999 rebounds, and with one board will become the youngest player in NBA history to reach 9,000 (27 years, 130 days old on 4/17/13). Wilt Chamberlain (27 years, 144 days old) is the current holder of the honor, with Bill Russell (27 years, 357 days old) not far off. The high-school-to-the-pros No. 1 pick will become the 13th fastest to 9,000 in terms of games played.

HOWARD’s FREE THROWS IMPROVE – A BIT: He’s shooting 55.3% in April, still rough, but at least noticeably up from under 49 percent on the season (now 49.4 percent).

JORDAN HILL UPDATE: Lakers reserve big man Jordan Hill, who had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left hip on Jan. 23, began running on an Alter G treadmill at 70 percent of his body weight on Friday. By Tuesday, Hill was up to 90 percent of his body weight. Once Hill gets to 100 percent of his body weight, he’ll be cleared for full weight-bearing running and jumping. Subsequently, he’ll be allowed to begin on-court basketball drills. The team has put a timeline of 3-4 weeks after that process before Hill would be ready to resume playing in games. Hill averaged 6.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game for the Lakers in 29 games of action.

Q: On playing tomorrow to get into the playoffs:
Gasol: It’s been that way pretty much the last 10 games, but this is the last game. That’s the difference. There’s not another game to make up for it. It’s a must win for us. We want to continue to play the way we’ve been playing. We’ve been doing well – same energy, same attitude, same intensity.
Q: On what advice – if any – he gives the guys for this last game:
Gasol: Just keep doing what they’ve been doing. Everybody needs to stay focused and locked in. It’s another big game. That’s what we’ve been playing for the last month – big game after big game. We’ve got two days of rest, so we should be mentally and physically ready for the last one.
Q: On if he learned anything about the team in the win against SAS:
Gasol: We just showed a lot of character and a lot of determination. Since Kobe went down and the Golden State game was on the line, we all wanted to pull through and come up with that win. Kobe has worked hard all year. We wanted to give ourselves a chance and make it to the playoffs. Fighting for our life has been the constant for a while, so it should be a big satisfaction to win tomorrow, get in (to the playoffs) with some momentum and understand we’re going to face a tough opponent.
Q: On the team’s play without Kobe Bryant thus far:
Gasol: We played one really good game against San Antonio. We hope to play another one tomorrow, and build on it little by little. We don’t have a lot of time obviously but we still have great players here and a great team even without Kobe. It’s unfortunate what happened; we all know that. But we have to face reality and give it our best shot, and that’s what we’ve been doing and we’ll continue to do.