But as has been the case for most of the season, the Lakers' dream became a nightmare: Due to a rash of injuries to their rotational guards, Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock were forced to start a playoff game against the San Antonio Spurs on Friday night.
Except the duo's play wasn’t the issue in Game 3. The two combined for 44 points on 17-of-32 shooting, which is better than some of the nights Bryant and Nash have had as a duo.
The issue was the defensive end of the floor, as the Lakers allowed the Spurs to score 120 points on 61.2 percent shooting. The Spurs had more turnovers (14 to 13) and less made free throws (11 to 15), yet they still won by 31 points, making for the worst home loss in Lakers playoff history.
While the Lakers certainly had every excuse to lose considering the personnel they were playing, it was disconcerting to see how little effort they put into their defensive execution, especially in their transition defense.
In the beginning of the fourth quarter, Pau Gasol threw up a wild shot out of a double-team on the left block and, thinking he was fouled, yelled out in frustration and stopped to stare at the nearest referee.
One of the keys of transition defense -- which no Laker did -- is stopping the ball, as all five guys turned their backs to Ginobili, who had time to wind up and throw a three-quarters court pass to a wide-open Duncan in the paint.
Chris Duhon, the only Laker who hustled back, had no choice but to foul Duncan, and only then did Gasol and Howard finally get into the fray. Duncan, who’s 37 years old and had played just as many minutes as either Laker big men at the time, made both free throws, extending the Spurs’ lead to 90-67 with 10:41 remaining.
Even when trailing by over 20 points and trying to make a late-game comeback, the Lakers haven’t had the determination to play consistent defense.
Despite misconception, the Spurs aren’t a potent transition team, ranking just 13th in fast-break points and 17th in transition points per possession, but the Lakers allowed them to score 19 fast-break points, which would rank second in the league throughout the season.
By virtually every conceivable category, the Lakers are a below-average defensive team. The Spurs have taken advantage of that all series, using well-timed offensive flurries to turn a one- or two-possession game into a double-digit deficit.
Against an offensive juggernaut like San Antonio that has more depth and talent than the Lakers, there’s almost no margin for error, as Game 3 showed. For the Lakers to have any chance at winning Game 4 on Sunday and extending the series for at least one more game, they’ll have to show a level of defensive coherence and effort that’s been missing all season.
Stats used in this post are from ESPN.com, NBA.com/Stats and MySynergySports.com.