The Lakers have to shoot for the moon against the favored San Antonio Spurs. Just ask Metta World Peace.
"They said there wouldn't be a man on the moon and a man went to the moon," the Lakers' loquacious forward said. "Is it true? Some people say the pictures are fake, though. I believe it. It was the first time. There's a first time for everything. If a man can go to the moon, we can do it. And we've got Dwight Howard too? Superman can go to the moon."
The Lakers concluded their strange, circuitous orbit around the regular season with a seventh-place finish in the Western Conference, earning a first-round playoff date with the Spurs on the last day of the regular season with a $100-million payroll littered by injuries and, at times, stunning ineffectiveness.
A seventh-seeded team has never won an NBA championship, perhaps why World Peace went beyond regular boundaries to find the right metaphor.
But the Lakers finished strong, winning their last five regular-season games as Kobe Bryant watched the final two from his Newport Coast home, his torn Achilles' tendon immobilized in a cast.
They begin the playoffs Sunday against the franchise with four championships since Tim Duncan and Coach Gregg Popovich joined one another. World Peace, of course, is familiar with both. He chose to talk about the latter.
"Popovich is amazing, I'm telling you now," he said. "He could have five old ladies after they ate 14 boxes of chocolate-chip cookies, he would put them on the court and they could win. That's how good Popovich is."
The Lakers have been more like sour milk against the Western Conference's top four teams this season (combined record: 4-14).
But they beat the Spurs last Sunday without Bryant, 91-86, and lost two other games to them by a total of five points.
The Spurs seem terrestrial compared to Oklahoma City, which the Lakers would have played if they hadn't beaten Houston in overtime Wednesday at Staples Center.
San Antonio (58-24) has lost its last three games, trying only partially in one of them, not at all in another and almost completely against the Lakers.
Tony Parker doesn't seem like Tony Parker, the All-Star guard making one of 10 shots against the Lakers and three of 10 in a home loss Wednesday to Minnesota.
He has been dinged by a variety of injuries — neck, ankle, shins — and teammate Manu Ginobili just returned from a three-week layoff because of a hamstring injury.
The Lakers will be without Bryant and possibly Steve Nash on Sunday, but they'll have the amazingly recharged Pau Gasol and the suddenly unstoppable Steve Blake, who has never scored so many points (47) in two consecutive games.
Gasol had 17 points, 20 rebounds and 11 assists against Houston, his second triple-double in three games.
He wasn't so strong last Sunday against the Spurs — seven points on three-for-17 shooting — but he pledged Wednesday to "continue with the spirit that we're playing with."
"Understand that it's going to be very difficult," Gasol said. "San Antonio is a great team. They're very experienced. They execute really well, they're disciplined, they're extremely well-coached, and we're going to play on their home court — but we still believe in ourselves."
Howard better believe he can make some free throws.
The Spurs weren't afraid to foul him on purpose Sunday. He made only four of 10 from the line in the third quarter when San Antonio employed the Hack-a-Howard strategy.
What if it keeps happening?
"Well, just go up there and make them. If not, get back on defense and get stops," Howard said after Sunday's game.
Howard finished the regular season with 49.2% accuracy from the free-throw line, narrowly missing Shaquille O'Neal territory (48.4% in 1996-97).
The Lakers won't complain, though. They're just happy they didn't miss playoffs for the third time since 1976.
What about Nash?
Will Nash be joining the Lakers in the playoffs?
He has missed eight consecutive games in a season awash in injuries. The 39-year-old point guard sat out a total of 32 games since signing a three-year, $28-million contract last July.
The latest injury required an epidural injection Tuesday to try to calm pre-existing issues in his back and hip that caused nerve irritation and contributed to pain and weakness in his hamstring.
"I'm cautiously optimistic," Lakers Coach Mike D'Antoni said Wednesday. "Just watching him, he looked a lot better. You can see his mood. He's happier. I can read it."
Nash hasn't played since March 30, though that barely counts. He lasted only two minutes. The game before that, he left in the third quarter, which means he hasn't played a full game since March 27.
That's 3½ weeks from Sunday's playoff opener….if he's even back by then.
Times staff writers Ben Bolch and Melissa Rohlin contributed to this report.