Updated: April 11, 2013, 3:50 AM ET

1. Lakers Majoring In Drama For This Playoff Push

By Danny Nowell | ESPN.com/TrueHoop Network

PORTLAND, Ore. -- If a season is 82 opportunities for a team to cement an identity, the Los Angeles Lakers have submitted nearly all their evidence. And needing a win to stay in control of their playoff destiny against a Portland Trail Blazers team that started as many rookies as Los Angeles has future Hall of Famers, the Lakers continued polishing the image they've forged: just enough, at the last possible moment, against challenges that never should have been this difficult.

Just a night after needing a 23-point fourth quarter from Kobe Bryant to dispatch the Hornets, the Lakers were nearly bested by a Blazers squad that seemed more like blowout material than a potential playoff spoiler. The Blazers scored 69 points in the first half Wednesday night, led by an incandescent Damian Lillard. The presumptive rookie of the year poured in 38 points, nine assists and three steals as Portland took Los Angeles to the breaking point at a time when the Lakers could least afford it. And yet: just enough.

Kobe Bryant, Damian Lillard
Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY SportsDamian Lillard (38 points) and Kobe Bryant (47 points) did battle with one team needing a win.

The Lakers made a concerted effort to get the ball out of Lillard's hands in the second half, and eventually the Blazers' weaknesses did them in. Los Angeles pulverized Meyers Leonard with targeted post-ups from Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, whose chemistry seemed as sharp as it has all season. Kobe gunned his way to 47 points, the big men each posted a double-double -- if you squint, this is how it was always supposed to be.

If you listen to the Lakers, they'll try to convince you the way their machine is running is worthy of the components. One reason they can do it with a straight face is that Gasol, whose relegation to the bench this season seemed like a point of no return, has put together two of his best efforts this season. After posting 22 points and 11 rebounds Tuesday night, Gasol nearly racked up a triple-double Wednesday night with 23 points on 11-for-15 shooting, seven rebounds and nine assists.

"Since January, he's played well," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. "I think earlier he was just hurt. The system was screwed up, we're trying to figure things out, and I'm trying to figure things out and how to play him. ... I have a lot more confidence in him now, and he's playing great."

And yet, the identity fractures that have plagued the Lakers aren't quite healed. Asked about Bryant's offensive performance, Gasol returned to a years-old theme: "I think it's spectacular and very impressive. ... On the other hand, I'm a player that -- I like to see a little more ball movement and better balance. That's just how I perceive this game." This is not a new point, and anybody familiar with the Lakers knows well the push and pull between Pau and Kobe. Still, as much as the Lakers faithful hope Gasol's resurgence rekindles hopes of contention, the message is clear: The Lakers are getting away with bandages where there ought to be strong stitching.

As for Gasol's compatriot in the post, familiar, too, is Howard's insistence on an offense dominated by post-ups. "We've got [to] really play inside-out," Howard said. "Teams are so worried about making sure we don't score in the post, we can kick it out to guys cutting, making 3s. ... I think that's the best way to play." When asked about Steve Blake's crucial offensive rebounds on consecutive fourth-quarter possessions, Howard said, "I think those guys were so concerned with keeping me off the glass that they forgot about him."

And so the Lakers' rising playoff chances might be new, but the tensions are not. Kobe and Pau, the stalwarts of the past half-decade, persist in their uneasy embrace while Howard's titanic and occasionally justified ego strains against the context of the team. As ever, Bryant's scoring maintains the delicate balance. Without 70 points in the past 60 minutes from the man who has always been this team's foundation and its ceiling, the Lakers most likely fumble away their playoff seed to a pair of lottery teams.

But they didn't, because this is what they do. They wait as long as possible to respond as much as they have to and hope we see what we've always wanted to: a balanced team of complementary superstars, rounding into form at just the right time.

Danny Nowell's work appears regularly on Portland Roundball Society.

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