With the Lakers—winners of 15 of their last 21 games—rolling and the teams in front of them hastily making way for them (Utah has lost six of seven. The Golden State Warriors have dropped 11 of their last 16.), LA is in position to secure that coveted postseason berth.
In fact, they've finally surpassed the Jazz in John Hollinger's playoff odds as they poke their heads above .500 for the first time in nearly four months.
While the Lakers still need to take things one game at a time—especially since they so generously give their opponents double-digit leads on a nightly basis—their fans can begin to turn their thoughts toward a playoff run. And with the kind of magic Kobe Bryant and Co. have been playing with lately, who knows what kind of havoc they can wreak if they get in to the dance.
In order for LA to make any sort of postseason noise, their role players will have to step up and contribute in a major way, especially these three guys.
1. Jodie Meeks
As usual in a Mike D'Antoni-designed system, the three-point shot is an integral part of the Lakers' offense. They're third in the NBA in three-pointers attempted and made, but just 13th in percentage.
Without a doubt, the Lakers' best three-point marksman is Steve Nash (which is why playing Nash off the ball more was one of D'Antoni's best decisions of the season), but their only other consistent threat from outside is Jodie Meeks.
When Meeks is knocking down the three-ball, it opens up the entire floor for guys like Nash and Bryant to break down the defense and get into the lane for easy baskets or timely kick-outs to shooters like Meeks.
The Lakers have a pretty thin bench, so getting some scoring punch from Meeks is key to avoiding letdowns by the second unit. He showed earlier this week in New Orleans that he has the ability to swing a game with his shooting.
Meeks' four fourth quarter threes against the Hornets sparked a huge Lakers comeback victory. For what it's worth, the Lakers are 6-0 this season when Meeks hits at least four triples in a game.
2. Earl Clark
After providing a spark for the Lakers when they were at their lowest, Earl Clark has faded into the background recently, especially since the All-Star break.
Over his past eight games, Clark is averaging just seven points. His shooting has also slumped, as he's shot just 41 percent from the field and 27 percent from three over that span.
As a result, Clark's minutes are drying up fast. He hasn't topped 30 minutes in the last eight games after doing so 13 times over the previous 20 contests.
A lot of Clark's value comes from his defense and rebounding, and those areas have dipped lately as well. He's grabbed a hair under five boards a game over his last eight and his defensive rating is an atrocious 116.5 in that time.
Clark will be relied upon in the postseason to defend the opposing team's top perimeter scorer for stretches. He may be the Lakers' best option to defend Kevin Durant if the Oklahoma City Thunder are indeed LA's first-round opponent.
3. Pau Gasol
I know I'm cheating a bit labeling Pau Gasol as a "role player", but that's what he's been for this team when he's been on the court. He's come off the bench more times this season than he has in his entire career up to this point.
Gasol has been in a season-long funk. A lot of that has to do with the way he's been deployed in Mike D'Antoni's offense.
He's playing further from the hoop than he ever has in his career. He's taking a career-low number of attempts at the rim and a career-high number of attempts from 16 or more feet away, per Hoopdata.
It will be interesting to see how Gasol is re-integrated into the lineup. The Lakers have had more success playing small this season with one of either Gasol or Howard on the court.
When the two big men have shared the floor, the Lakers have been outscored by opponents per 100 possessions and their top-10 offense sinks to a league-average level, according to NBA.com.
Of the six Lakers five-man lineups that have played at least 50 minutes together and outscored their opponents, Howard and Gasol appear together in only two of them.
Pau Gasol's return has the potential to bump the Lakers up a level or even two. The biggest question of the postseason for LA will be how effective the former All-Star can be.
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