As the Los Angeles Lakers attempt to finish the season strong enough to garner a playoff spot, point guard Steve Nash is hobbling to the finish line.
The 39-year-old point guard suffered a hamstring strain on March 28 and has yet to successfully return to the lineup. Even though it's not an injury that should keep him out indefinitely, it's not realistic to expect that the aging point guard will be 100 percent once he does get back into the lineup.
It's been a rare occassion for this Lakers team to play with a lineup at full strength. Nash has only played in 50 of the Lakers 75 games. Pau Gasol, Steve Blake and now Metta World Peace have all missed lengthy portions of the season.
Now with seven games left and a half-game lead over the Utah Jazz for the final spot in the Western Conference playoffs, the Lakers need to find a way to win with a less-than-healthy Nash.
Here's how the Lakers can still pull it together and salvage a playoff appearance this season.
Make Kobe the Facilitator
With Nash out of the lineup, it's Blake who logs the most minutes at point guard. However, it's Kobe that must take the reigns as the team's leading distributor.
Kobe Bryant and facilitator have never been synonymous, but the Lakers have been most successful when Bryant uses the attention he receives from opposing defenses to set up his teammates. As Mike Trudell points out, Bryant has stepped up to the plate in the last two games, dishing out 25 assists.
Mike Trudell @LakersReporter
Nash likely being out does put more of a strain on Kobe to make plays, but he's done it brilliantly in last 2 games (25 dimes).4/4/2013, 8:32:37 PM
Blake is a capable point guard. He needs to be involved in the offense, but Bryant should be running the show. Bryant is averaging 6.0 assists per game. That's a mark he hasn't reached since the 2004-05 season.
He'll need to keep the ball moving if the Lakers want to close out the season strong.
Let Steve Blake Shoot
Nash's role as the distributor can be replaced by Kobe. His role as the team's three-point sniper has to be replaced by Blake.
According to Trudell, Nash's 43.8 percent from beyond the arc is the 6th highest percentage in the league. Fortunately for the Lakers, Blake isn't too far behind, coming in at No. 11, shooting at 42.7 percent from distance this season.
Mike Trudell @LakersReporter
This season, @SteveBlake5 is shooting 42.7% from 3-point range. That ranks 11th in the NBA. @SteveNash is 6th at 43.8%.4/5/2013, 7:35:02 AM
Blake doesn't need to do too much within the offense. The majority of the touches have to be distributed among Bryant, Gasol and Dwight Howard. However, when the Lakers need a three, they need to look to Blake on the kick-out.
With Nash out of the lineup, Blake becomes the go-to guy from the outside.
Feed Dwight Howard the Ball
Regardless of Nash's status, the Lakers must rely heavily on Howard to carry them into the playoffs.
This is still Bryant's team, but they have to be focused on getting the ball to Howard in the post.
A quick glance at Howard's numbers in Lakers wins compared to those in losses reveals his importance to the team. In 36 wins with Howard in the lineup, the big man has averaged 19.1 points per game on 12 field goal attempts. In 33 losses he has only averaged 14 points on nine field goal attempts.
The difference in points can be explained by how many attempts Howard is getting. When Howard doesn't get the ball enough, the Lakers don't win.
Whether it's Nash, Blake or Kobe running the offense, Howard must have the ball in his hands if the Lakers are to make the playoffs this season.