The Los Angeles Lakers can breathe easier with the knowledge that whether they win or lose against the Houston Rockets, will have a spot in the Western Conference playoffs after the Memphis Grizzlies defeated the Utah Jazz, 86-70, at FedEx Forum on Wednesday night.
In a defensive-minded game, Memphis took care of business at home and knocked Utah out of the playoffs, guaranteeing at least an eighth place finish in the Western Conference for the Lakers in the process. Los Angeles still has plenty to play for, however, as they can secure the No. 7 seed by defeating the Rockets at Staples Center.
That’s going to be a tall order, as will having any success in any potential playoff series, without the services of Kobe Bryant. There were already questions with respect to the Lakers’ chances to beat any elite team in a seven-game series even with the Black Mamba’s services, but that task has become more difficult given that they will be without him for the duration of the postseason.
That means the time is now for the Lakers to step up and prove to themselves and the rest of the league that they can compete without their superstar. Dwight Howard has an opportunity to show what he can do to lead them from the front when the stakes are highest in a playoff setting. Of all the players wearing purple and gold, there’s no doubt that he’s likely the one feeling the most pressure to succeed. How it plays out could go a long way toward earning a status among fans in Hollywood and around the league as a franchise player instead of one who needs another superstar to contend for titles.
Memphis did the Lakers a favor by winning on Wednesday, but L.A. has a lot to prove and play for. The difference between securing the eighth and seventh spots means an opening-round series against either the red-hot Oklahoma City Thunder or the banged-up and aging San Antonio Spurs. Obviously, the Lakers would match up better in a series against San Antonio, who they beat on Sunday in a game they had to have. That matchup was indicative of a playoff game as the Spurs were competing for a No. 1 seed, and the Lakers showed they could compete when tested.
Oklahoma City, however, has had the Lakers’ number this season and in recent years. The Thunder were 3-1 against Los Angeles and have only improved as they assimilate to their new-look roster. The same could be said for L.A. with its roller coaster ride of a season, but without Bryant, it’s a foregone conclusion that they would be overmatched and a clear-cut underdog.
Either way, the Grizzlies’ win is a positive, because it ensures the Lakers will have an opportunity to measure themselves against the league’s best. It also gives Howard a chance to extend his audition as the future of one of pro sports’ most storied franchises. That audition begins against Houston Wednesday night in a game that’s not a must-win, but a true gauge of where the Lakers stand going into the most important stretch of 2012-13.
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