Updated: April 21, 2013, 3:52 PM ET

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Key Players To Watch: Spurs vs. Lakers

By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Howard
Howard

(2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (7) Los Angeles Lakers

Player with most at stake: Dwight Howard

Now that the Lakers have come out and said what they've been thinking all along -- Mike D'Antoni will be back to coach the team next season -- the stakes have doubled for Howard.

It's not that Howard won't have his choice of staying with the Lakers for the most possible money if he so desires, even if the Lakers get swept by the Spurs. It's a matter of how the fans will react to it. Will they see him as a suitable replacement for Kobe Bryant in the short and long term?

Will he be viewed as a true franchise player, something the Lakers franchise player himself, Magic Johnson, called into question as recently as Sunday? Remember the standards set by the Magic Man: He never played back-to-back seasons with the Lakers that didn't result in at least one trip to the NBA Finals.

This is one postseason that the Lakers get a pass on for stopping short of June. They don't have Bryant along for the ride, and teams don't climb out of the 7-hole to make championship runs. That doesn't mean Howard can mail in performances. He can't be shown up by 36-year-old Tim Duncan, who keeps posting throwbacks like a 28-point, 19-rebound game. Here's one last Shaquille O'Neal comparison for Howard to hear: Shaq's scoring average was higher in the playoffs than the regular season in every year Shaq played in L.A. So 17.1 points a game won't cut it for Howard.

How the series will be decided: The reason the Lakers are lucky to face the Spurs in the first round is San Antonio had the least-potent offense of the top three seeds in the Western Conference. Now, the Spurs are still the fourth-best offense in the West, but a difference of three points a game is critical to a Lakers team that won its typical game by a margin of 1.2 points. The Spurs also don't get as many points on the fast break as Denver or Oklahoma City, which is welcome news to a Lakers team that's next to last in the NBA in fast-break points allowed.

Another reason the Lakers would prefer the Spurs right about now: Tony Parker comes into the playoffs amid his worst month this season; he averaged 13.6 points and shot 40 percent in April.

The Lakers' size will force Gregg Popovich to stick with bigger lineups, which will slow the Spurs down and take away a bit of their scoring edge.

But the Spurs are a deeper team, and they're getting players back while the Lakers are still dealing with injuries. Manu Ginobili's right hamstring was good enough for him to play in the regular-season finale. As the series goes on and he gets better conditioned and the Spurs get used to playing with him again, they'll prove to be the better team.

Read the rest of J.A. Adande's column here »

J.A. Adande | email

ESPN Senior Writer

Scouting Lakers-Spurs

QUESTION 1: Who can be the Lakers' closer without Kobe Bryant?

Elhassan: Ideally, Steve Nash can fill that role, as he combines elite shooting with elite decision-making. While the ball in Bryant's hands carries with it the foregone conclusion of a field goal attempt, Nash brings the threat of the pass in end-of-game situations. The problem for the Lakers is that Nash has been dealing with an array of nagging injuries that caused him to miss the final month of the season, and he's listed as questionable for Game 1.

In the absence of Bryant and Nash, the next logical option is Pau Gasol, who Lakers fans have to be thrilled wasn't jettisoned at the deadline. Gasol has performed at Olympic levels, averaging 17.5 PPG, 12.1 RPG and a whopping 6.6 APG in the final month of the regular season, and like Nash, he brings the threat of the pass with his scoring ability.

Doolittle: His name will be "Picken Roll." The Lakers have the perfect excuse to shun hero-ball tactics at crunch time and instead run actual plays. That's not a slam on Bryant, whose excellence in the clutch is one of the main reasons so many teams try to find the mythical "closer." Even if the Lakers don't want to give Dwight Howard too many late touches because of his free throw shooting, they can still use Gasol as a ball screener for Nash. They need a semi-healthy Nash, because he's the guy who can make the key decisions at big moments.


QUESTION 2: Will we see Tracy McGrady take the floor for the Spurs?

Elhassan: McGrady was signed by the Spurs at the end of the season. Since he played in the Chinese Basketball Association this season and wasn't on an NBA roster after March 1, he is eligible to be active for the playoffs. However, he hasn't played a live basketball game since March 17, when he played for the Qingdao Double Star, the worst team in the CBA this season (8-24).

McGrady brings great size and is a versatile playmaker -- sorely needed with the loss of Boris Diaw and the uncertain availability of Manu Ginobili -- but it is hard to believe he can just step into the flow of an NBA game after playing against inferior competition for most of the year. I can't see Gregg Popovich going to McGrady unless the Spurs are winning (or losing) by a wide margin.

Doolittle: He averaged more than 25 points in China! McGrady was a fairly effective reserve for Detroit and Atlanta. It was a different version of McGrady, of course, as he was more of a ground-based box-score stuffer and facilitator than a high-flying scorer. Still, I don't see him being an impact player in the playoffs, and he's probably not in good enough shape to add much to the Spurs for this series. McGrady's signing was kind of a bizarre transaction, and I have to assume he's more of a contingency option than anything given the Spurs' spate of injury problems.

For the rest of the scouting report, click here Insider

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