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NBA Los Angeles LakersSan Antonio Spurs

Lakers vs. Spurs NBA Playoffs 2013 X-Factors: Pau Gasol, Kawhi Leonard

It’s been a long time since Los Angeles Lakers fans showed appreciation for Pau Gasol, but he proved he’s still worthy to wear the purple and gold with his second triple-double in three games, which propelled the Lakers to a 99-95 overtime win over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday. The season-finale victory sealed the seventh seed in the Western Conference playoffs for the Lakers, who will play the second-seeded San Antonio Spurs.

Gasol has shown he’s the new backbone for the Lakers after Kobe Bryant‘s season-ending injury, so he’s whether or not he can keep up his incredible all-around performances will be the key to this series for the Lakers. Gasol is scoring, rebounding and dishing assists to make up for Bryant’s absence. Now he’ll have to up that level of production even more for Los Angeles to have a chance at upsetting San Antonio.

For the Spurs, Kawhi Leonard would be the X-factor for the entire series if Bryant was playing, but not he’s not facing nearly as much pressure. Still, Leonard is going to have to go from “youngster with potential” to team leader in these playoffs or the Spurs’ Big Three era will actually come to an end this time.

As for this series in particular, it will be up to Leonard to provide the difference in production for the Spurs to keep Gasol and the Lakers from catching fire and going on a hot streak without Bryant. Leonard certainly won’t be guarding Gasol or anything like that, but if the Spurs continue their stale play, it will be up to Leonard to provide the spark when needed and keep the Lakers at bay. In short, Leonard will have to be like a constant timeout for San Antonio to kill any momentum Los Angeles builds during the series.

If Gasol gets going, the Spurs will be forced to give Tim Duncan more minutes than they want and that could doom them. It will be up to Leonard to ensure that Gasol’s performance doesn’t make enough of a difference so this series doesn’t go seven games.