SANTA MONICA, Calif. (AP) — Facing an 0-3 deficit to the surging San Antonio Spurs, the Los Angeles Lakers probably will run out of games in their season before they run out of healthy players.
But it’ll be close.
Coach Mike D’Antoni said Metta World Peace won’t play in Game 4 of their first-round series Sunday when the Lakers attempt to avoid their earliest playoff exit since 2007. That’s going to be tough with a starting lineup including Earl Clark, Andrew Goudelock and Darius Morris facing Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and the playoff-tested Spurs.
The Lakers might laugh at the absurdity of their injury problems if this dire situation wasn’t such a crushing disappointment for a team that began the season with championship aspirations. Instead, they expressed as much plausible optimism as possible after Saturday’s practice at their quiet training complex.
“Despite all the injuries, as a team we’ve stayed together,” said a solemn Dwight Howard, who is eligible for free agency after the season. “When most teams would fall apart and blame each other and point a finger, we’ve stayed together, become a closer team throughout all the adversity.”
San Antonio handed the Lakers their biggest home playoff defeat in franchise history in Game 3. After the 31-point blowout put the series into such stark terms on a gorgeous day in Southern California, both clubs had to avoid the natural inclination to look ahead — the Spurs to the second round, and the Lakers to summer.
The Spurs realize they’re thought to be the new favorite to come out of the West after Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook was ruled out for the postseason. Just don’t expect Duncan, Parker or coach Gregg Popovich even to dignify such speculation by thinking beyond Sunday.
“Hopefully we can close this series out on Sunday and give our team some time to rest, get everybody healthy again,” Duncan told reporters after practice at Santa Monica Community College.
And the Spurs are hurting, too: They’ll be without starting center Tiago Splitter, who sprained his left ankle in Game 3, and Boris Diaw still isn’t ready to return from a back injury. Although Splitter doesn’t score much, his solid defense could be missed against Howard and Pau Gasol.
“I think it’s very important for us as a team to finish (Sunday),” said Parker, who was fine after World Peace scratched his eye in Game 3. “Especially with Tiago being hurt now, and waiting for Boris to get back — me, Manu (Ginobili), T.D., we can always use some rest.”
Splitter’s absence will give more minutes to backups DeJuan Blair and Matt Bonner, and it might give a faint hope to the Lakers, whose low-post stars have played fairly well: Howard had 25 points and 11 rebounds in Game 3, and Gasol had a triple-double.
Los Angeles’ two-man post game has been remarkably effective in those few, fleeting games when Howard and Gasol have both been healthy this season. D’Antoni knows it’s the only choice they’ve got in Game 4 with their other three regular starters watching in street clothes.
World Peace will join Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks on the Lakers’ crowded sideline Sunday. World Peace struggled through the biggest home loss in Los Angeles playoff history Friday night, hours after getting fluid drained from a cyst behind his left knee.
Howard, Gasol, Antawn Jamison and Jordan Hill also are playing through injuries that would keep them out in other circumstances.
“We’re wounded, (but) we’ve just got to stay positive and give ourselves a chance,” Gasol said. “It’s been really difficult to play at this level of playoff basketball without your roster healthy, without four or five key players in your rotation … I’m proud of us because we’ve been fighting so much.”
The Lakers realize no NBA team has ever rallied from an 0-3 playoff deficit, and nothing about their patchwork roster suggests this team could be the first. Yet Los Angeles survived its awful start to the season with a consistent, businesslike approach since January, and D’Antoni wants the Lakers to stay focused on the present, however long that might be.
“You can’t do something that everybody will talk about if everybody expects you to do it,” D’Antoni said. “Nobody expects us to do it. We’re going to show up, going to try to do it. Why not? We’ve got good guys, and they’ve battled since February to get us in this position. Now we’re in another big hole, and we’re going to try to dig out little by little.”
The Spurs’ merciless 120-point performance in Game 3 included 61.2 percent shooting, a 49-35 rebounding edge and even a 7-3 edge in blocked shots. Splitter played nearly 22 minutes before getting injured, and the Spurs will try to fill his minutes with new contributors while doing everything else almost exactly the same way in Game 4.
“They are hurt,” Ginobili said. “They are wounded, and we have a great opportunity. When you have a good opportunity, you want to grab it. So we know we’re in that spot, but I’m going to say the same I said before Game 3. We’ve just got to respect them, be humble, play hard. Don’t think about anything else but the next quarter, the next minute.”