After one of the most arduous and pitfall-filled seasons in Los Angeles Lakers history, if not in the entire history of the league, the guys in purple and gold find themselves in the postseason with a first-round series against the San Antonio Spurs.
L.A. has to feel good about itself, finishing the regular season 28-12 after bottoming out with a record eight games below .500 in late January. They were even better in April, going 7-1, including winning their last five in a row to secure the No. 7 seed and set up their date with the No. 2 Spurs.
However, during that final postseason push, Kobe Bryant went out with an Achilles tear in his left foot, requiring surgery that will sideline him for six to nine months.
Can the Bryant-less Lakers upset a Spurs team that finished with the second-best record in the West and third-best record in the entire league?
Here are 10 things to think about heading into the series to determine just how realistic a possibility that is.
1. San Antonio's home-court advantage
Even though the Spurs looked somewhat ripe for the picking, having gone 3-7 over their final 10 games of the regular season, remember that the series opens up at the AT&T Center, where they went 35-6 this season. Meanwhile, the Lakers were just 16-25 away from Staples Center. It will be a major challenge for L.A. to bring the series back home with a split after the first two games in San Antonio.
Definitely the body part that could have the biggest impact on the series for both teams. Steve Nash plans to play in Game 1 after missing the Lakers' last eight games because of a bum right hamstring, hip and lower back. Manu Ginobili only played one game in April -- an uninspiring 12 minutes in the season finale -- because of his own right hamstring injury. If Ginobili is healthy, he could have a field day carving up the Lakers' perimeter defense that is missing Bryant and has a hobbled Metta World Peace out there still less than a month removed from knee surgery. If Nash is healthy, L.A. gets another elite shooter to help open up the floor so Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol have more room to operate down low.
3. Know your history
The Lakers and Spurs have met 11 times in the postseason, with L.A. winning eight of those series (most recently downing San Antonio in the 2008 Western Conference finals). However, the Spurs had much more success in the postseason against Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni and Nash when they were both in Phoenix. San Antonio beat the Suns three times in the playoffs during the "Seven Seconds or Less" era -- in the conference finals in 2005, the second round in 2007 and the first round in 2008.
4. Other injuries to track
Boris Diaw had back surgery to remove a cyst just more than a week ago, and will be out another 2-3 weeks before he can return meaning that the Spurs will be going with either DeJuan Blair or Matt Bonner as their primary big off the bench. On the Lakers' side, Jordan Hill who was declared out for the season after left hip surgery in January, is slowly working his way back to the lineup. Hill was able to participate in non-contact practice on Friday and Saturday, including full-court running. He is still considered a longshot to be available for the Spurs series, however, so Antawn Jamison will continue to be L.A.'s lone big man to get minutes off the bench playing as a stretch 4.
5. Throw out the regular-season series
The first time the Lakers and Spurs played this season, Bernie Bickerstaff was coaching the Lakers. The second time, the Lakers were without Gasol (knee tendinitis) and Howard (torn labrum). The third time, the Spurs were without Ginobili and L.A. didn't have Nash. So, if you're looking into the Spurs' 2-1 regular season series record against L.A. as evidence of what's to come in the playoffs, you shouldn't.
6. It's the defense
The way L.A. was able to keep the boat afloat in two must-win games after Bryant went out was with their defense. The Lakers held the Spurs to just 86 points and the Houston Rockets, who came into the game averaging a league-leading 106.1 points per game, to just 95 points in 53 minutes of game time. And the Lakers held both of them to sub-40 percent shooting. Fierce defense (and slowing the ball down on offense and cutting back on turnovers to allow that defense to get set up and avoid being exploited in transition) should be L.A.'s calling card.
7. Matchup to watch: Tim Duncan vs. Dwight Howard
It's rare that a series can really be decided on one matchup, but whomever dominates between Duncan and Howard is likely to sway whose team will be going on to the second round. Howard is nine years Duncan's junior and has zero rings to Duncan's four. This could be a coming-out party for Howard or a last stand by Duncan.
8. Lakers X-factor: Steve Blake
Blake averaged 23.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 1.0 steals over the Lakers' final two regular-season games with Nash and Bryant out. He played so well that despite Nash set to return as the starting point guard, D'Antoni is strongly considering starting Blake and Nash together in the backcourt. It is probably expecting too much to think Blake could average 20-plus points for the series, but if he can consistently score in the teens while shooting north of 50 percent, the Lakers will be much deeper.
9. Spurs X-factor: Kawhi Leonard
After Howard, Leonard is the second-best athlete of the series. The second-year forward can rebound (6.0 rebounds per game) and has become a reliable outside shooter (37.4 percent). He is the type of player that can really hurt the Lakers by getting up the floor in transition. Tony Parker is the easy choice here, as he went just 1-for-10 in the Spurs' loss to the Lakers last week, but he is expected to bounce back. Leonard, in just his second season in the league, could be a true wild card.
10. Plenty of motivation
Howard continues to talk about the Lakers' chase for title No. 17 and the Lakers broke their huddle on Friday with, "1-2-3 Championship!" Just about a month ago when L.A. blew a big lead at home in a loss to Washington, D'Antoni called his team's championship aspirations "laughable." If the Lakers upset the Spurs, nobody will be laughing anymore.