If the Los Angeles Lakers had entered the postseason completely healthy, this could have been a fantastic playoff series.
Alas, the injury bug finally took a bite out of Kobe Bryant's ageless legs, depriving fans of a thrilling clash between the Black Mamba and Tim Duncan, two early nominees for the All-Century team.
With the graying Lakers lineup hobbled, the San Antonio Spurs have ruthlessly taken over the series. They won each of the first three games by double digits and handed L.A. a 31-point shellacking in Game 3, the worst home playoff loss in the franchise's storied history.
Andrew Goudelock will start at shooting guard for L.A., and he brings an MVP pedigree. Unfortunately, that was MVP of the D-League, and these are the NBA playoffs. Though the Lakers will come out fighting, they don't really have a puncher's chance in this one.
Time: Sunday, April 28, 7 p.m. ET
Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
Series Record: 3-0 Spurs
Game 4 Key Storyline: Respect
Sports is all about character and perseverance, but very few sane individuals would give the Lakers any chance of winning four straight games against San Antonio and pulling off a crazy comeback. That sort of thing just does not happen in the NBA, no matter how much character and will a team has.
L.A. isn't waving the white flag quite yet, and their focus is set on winning just one game. If that works on Sunday, they'll try to repeat it in Game 5. But the Spurs are not prone to narcolepsy, and the Lakers won't catch them napping.
Though the franchise circumstances and team makeup are radically different, the Lakers find themselves in roughly the same spot as the New York Knicks in last year's playoffs: down 0-3 to a vastly superior opponent.
At that point, the modest goal becomes just avoiding a sweep. The Knicks stole a game against the Miami Heat last year, and confetti rained down on Madison Square Garden.
While the Lakers aren't as hungry for a postseason victory as the starved Knicks were last year, ending the season by getting swept would leave an especially acrid taste in the mouths of fans and players.
Series Star So Far
Manu Ginobili's surprising production helped key the Spurs' first two wins, but this honor clearly belongs to one of two people: Tim Duncan or Tony Parker.
With no disrespect to the 37-year-old Duncan, who has continued to play at an incredibly high level, Parker's production has been more vital.
The margin of victory in Game 3 was higher than that in the first two games combined, and the Frenchman carried his team through both home games. He followed his 18 points, eight dimes and three steals in Game 1 with 28 points, seven assists and four boards in Game 2, posting team-highs in points and assists in both games.
By the time the series headed to California, the Lakers were all but French toast thanks in large part to Parker. Though the Frenchman has had the benefit of guarding a decimated Lakers frontcourt, his offensive output has continued to be MVP-caliber.
Projected Starting Lineups
Spurs: Tony Parker, PG; Danny Green, SG; Kawhi Leonard, SF; Tim Duncan, PF; DeJuan Blair, C
Lakers: Darius Morris, PG; Andrew Goudelock, SG; Earl Clark, SF; Pau Gasol, PF; Dwight Howard, C
Spurs Injury Report (via CBSSports.com)
Tiago Splitter (ankle), out; Boris Diaw (back), questionable
Lakers Injury Report
Kobe Bryant (Achilles), out; Steve Nash (hamstring), out; Steve Blake (hamstring), out; Jodie Meeks (ankle), out; Metta World Peace (knee), out
Spurs Will Win If...
They win the rebounding battle (or, actually, just so long as the team bus makes it to the arena).
Rebounding was one of the few advantages the Lakers had over the Spurs entering the series. Behind Howard's presence on the glass, the Lakers finished fourth in team rebounding while San Antonio ranked 20th. Yet, despite fielding two seven-footers, L.A. has been out-rebounded in these playoffs (43.0 to 39.7 per game).
With DeJuan Blair figuring to slot in for the injured Tiago Splitter, the Spurs will be undersized in the middle. Though Blair plays bigger than his 6'7" size suggests, it'll be a tough matchup against Pau and Dwight, plus Earl Clark who figures to start for MWP.
Matt Bonner, aka the Red Mamba, could also start at the 4 with Duncan sliding to the 5, but this would not aid the matchup issues down low. Nevertheless, Timmy will find a way to neutralize all his team's disadvantages. He's just that good.
Lakers Will Win If...
They play incredible defense, have a wide rebounding advantage and get surprised with scoring from their no-name backcourt.
Howard and Gasol could combine for 60 points and 50 rebounds, and the Lakers could manage to lose anyway.
They are without the top four guards on their roster, plus their starting swingman. As Bleacher Report columnist Kevin Ding put it, L.A.'s lineup on court for tipoff will be Pau Gasol and a quartet of guys who might not be wearing the purple and gold next year.
KEVIN DING @KevinDing
Projected starting lineup for tomorrow will be Pau and four free agents (Howard, Clark, Morris, Goudelock).2013-4-27 20:42:43
Essentially the only thing that the Lakers have going for them is the will to avoid a sweep at home and salvage a modicum of respect from this wholly ruined season. Somehow, the Las Vegas favorite to represent the West is desperately hoping for a long-shot upset to scratch out just a single playoff victory.
Watching the Lakers in this series, I'm reminded of a verse from the Gospel of Matthew: The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
Considering the Lakers' numerous entries on the injury report, it's not surprising they're staring down the barrel of a sweep. Even Howard and Gasol are waking wounded, nursing shoulder and leg injuries that have hampered them throughout the year.
Missing the playoffs might have been a better way to finish the season for the Lake Show, as it would have at least spared them the indignity of a postseason belly flop.
Expect the Lakers to come out fast in this game as they're backed into a corner. They'll play with a scrappy hunger, but that won't sustain them against the stout Spurs.
While the halftime score could be close, Gregg Popovich's team won't mess around with a Game 5 and use their brooms on Sunday night.
Prediction: Spurs 105, Lakers 86