SAN ANTONIO (AP) - The San Antonio Spurs won't be facing Kobe Bryant when they begin their playoff series against the Los Angeles Lakers.
It's their 12th postseason series, but familiar foe Bryant is absent after tearing his Achilles tendon on April 12.
Are the Spurs going to miss competing against their chief nemesis when the series starts Sunday?
``Not really,' Manu Ginobili said. ``Of course, playing against him makes you better, that's for sure. He challenges you on every possession, but I'm not going to miss him, that's for sure.'
San Antonio has enough of its own worries. The Spurs enter the playoffs having lost three straight and seven of 10 while Ginobili and Tony Parker have dealt with leg injuries.
Bryant's injury capped a tumultuous regular season that included the firing of Mike Brown, the courtship of Phil Jackson before the hiring of Mike D'Antoni, purported infighting among players and injuries to Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash and Metta World Peace.
Los Angeles responded by winning five straight to close the regular season, including a 91-86 victory over San Antonio in its first game without Bryant. The late push helped the Lakers capture the seventh seed and earn a matchup with the second-seeded Spurs.
``Of course, I've think they've done a great job,' Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. ``The coaching change was a long time ago, but they're a different team and that's to be expected. Without Kobe, there has to be a different emphasis and they've made that transition very well and played very successfully.'
The Lakers received some good news with Nash expected to play after missing the final eight games of the season with a hamstring/hip injury. Nash leads the team with 6.7 assists per game.
``Mentally, I'm chomping at the bit and physically I'm getting there,' Nash said. ``I'm very optimistic I'll be able to play on Sunday.'
Nash's presence should help the team's transition to an interior game without Bryant. Howard and Gasol combined for 33 points and 35.5 rebounds in the final two games without Bryant.
``It's a new team, it's a different team,' Parker said. ``They play different. Everything goes through Dwight so he's going to try to draw a double team and they have got shooters. Steve Nash is going to have the ball a lot more. It's going to be a lot different.'
Howard can expect added attention from the Spurs when they employ the Hack-a-Howard strategy that Popovich first used to force Shaquille O'Neal to the free-throw line.
``If they want to do that the whole series, God bless them,' Howard said. ``There's nothing I can do about it but go up there and shoot the free throws. Even if I make them, they're still going to do it.'
How many times the Spurs will do that, is unclear.
``I don't know, you should ask Pop,' Parker said, smiling, ``But a lot, if I had to bet money. People are going to scream at him in L.A., it will be funny.'
Howard shot 49.2 percent on free throws in the regular season, his second-lowest career total behind the 49.1 he shot last season. He was 8 for 17 in the Lakers' recent victory over the Spurs, but had 26 points and 17 rebounds.
``My concern is what I can control on the defensive end and then on the offensive end, just dominate,' Howard said. ``If they foul me, they foul me. We're going to make them pay.'
The Spurs are aware of the Lakers' inside presence and Parker hopes to raise the tempo to keep Howard and Gasol from digging in defensively.
``We definitely want to push it,' Parker said. ``I definitely want to try to get some easy baskets because once they set they have a pretty solid defense. Definitely going to try to push it and get some easy points.'
Parker had four points on 1-for-10 shooting and eight assists in the Spurs' recent loss to the Lakers in his second game back after missing four straight due to a sore neck, ankle and shin.
``The last time we played LA, I played the worst game of my season,' Parker said. ``I had a rough shooting night and everything was hurting. But this is a great opportunity for me to bounce back and play better. I'm pretty sure I'll play better than the last game.'
The Spurs played that game without Ginobili, who missed nine straight with a strained right hamstring before returning for the team's season finale against Minnesota. Ginobili said his health and conditioning are good, but his timing is still off.
``I'm going to try to contribute in any way or form I can,' he said. ``I'm probably not going to be a factor scoring wise, I'm just trying to be solid, create for my teammates, play good D and do the little things.'
Even with Bryant out, the Lakers and Spurs still have one of the league's more spirited rivalries. The teams combined to win seven straight Western Conference titles from 1999-2005. The teams met five times during the postseason from 1999-2004, but have not played since the Lakers beat the Spurs 4-1 in the 2008 West finals.
``It's a great rivalry with them,' Parker said. ``When I first arrived in San Antonio, that's all we talked about, that's all they talked to me (about). The whole first half talk was about how can we beat the Lakers, Kobe and Shaq. It's great to play against them.
``I'm sure the whole city and all our Spurs fans are excited. It's a great challenge and a greater opportunity to do well.'
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
All Rights Reserved