Records: Lakers 51-13 (1st in the West) Spurs 43-20 (2nd in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 113.9 (1st in league) Spurs 108.7 (14th in league)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.6 (6th in league) Spurs 104.0 (4th in league)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Trevor Ariza, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Spurs Tony Parker, Roger Mason, Michael Finley, Mat Bonner, Tim Duncan
The Lakers coming in: For all the hype about statistics and Battier and Kobe, there was one line in that piece that is forgotten. Watching the game with a Rockets executive, the executive says it is a case of “pick your poison” with Kobe. You can do everything right, and he will still hit the shot a frightening amount of the time. I think when that article was published, the Rockets front office winced a little because they knew this game was coming — the article portrayed the Rockets front office as almost arrogant regarding stopping Kobe (that may have been more the focus of the writer than what actually happened), and you have to be careful about pissing off Kobe and making him hyper-focused. Artest being physical and barking at him doesn’t help.
A few people in the comments said they want to get back to more team-oriented ball tonight, and I think the Lakers will. But on a night when the best player in the game is hot, you ride that train.
The real big news last night was the move of Trevor Ariza to the starting lineup — at the request of Luke Walton. Credit Walton for taking the step.
More to the point, this is another case of Phil letting the players figure out for themselves what is needed, not just dictating change. Rather than forcing Ariza to start as many coaches would have done earlier in the year, Phil let everyone figure it out for themselves, and with that they are far more accepting of their roles.
I think we’ve all known Ariza was the best Laker three this season — the best defender, the guy playing with the most aggression. Now he is the starter, and he makes the first five that much better because of the defense, because he works well from the weakside (with Kobe and Pau dominating the strong side), because he can get some easy baskets in transition, and he will get some boards. The key on offense will be hitting some threes — he is up to 31.7% from there for the season, but is just 24.9% in the last 10 games.
Walton to the second unit also means that unit may slow down a little, but they will run the offense and get shots out of it. That is what happened last night, and they looked better. Once Bynum returns and Odom (or Bynum) play with the second unit, all the better. Imagine the ball movement of a second unit with Farmar, Walton and Odom — that is going to expand leads because teams will not be used to dealing with that type of play.
The Spurs Coming In: This is a team that remains with two-thirds of the Big Three — Manu is out. The question has to be, how far can they go in the postseason without him at 100%?
Over at 48 Minutes of Hell, there is an interesting talk about Bruce Bowen. The issue is, while he has slowed, their defensive numbers are still much better when he plays.
If Bowen remains such a potent defensive force than why has Popovich decreased his minutes so significantly? Well, two reasons. The first is that little number I mentioned earlier: 37. Bowen is borderline psychotic about his conditioning but no workout regimen can bring the biological clock to a screeching halt. If Popovich wants Bowen to continue to be as effective as he once was, he realizes Bruce has to be used in an increasingly surgical manner.
The second reason has a lot to do with the Lakers, actually. After a 4-1 thumping in last year’s Western Conference Finals, everyone understood that the Spurs needed some tweaking if they were going to sneak past LA this season. The most decisive “tweak” Popovich made was to use more offensive minded 5-man units a greater percentage of the time. By replacing Finley with Mason, Bowen with Finley, and Oberto with Bonner, Popovich sacrificed defensive ability for offensive output at 3 of the 5 starting positions.
As I’ve said repeatedly, I think this is the right strategy. No matter what point of decline you think Bowen may be at, it is clear this team is no longer the defensive juggernaut we once were. We may still be one of the top 5 defensive teams in the league but we do not possess the talent to stop the Lakers entirely; our best hope is to slow them down. But in order for the Spurs to win a 7 game series against the Lake Show (or at least stand a better chance than last season), we have to show more offensive consistency than we did in ‘08. I often complain about the awful droughts the Spurs’ offense suffered last season. The Spurs cannot sacrifice an entire quarter of offensive output and expect to outscore LA over the course of 48 minutes. By leaving more shooters and less stoppers on the floor, Pop is giving us a better chance to upset Los Angeles.
Keys To The Game: Okay, we’ve talked about everyone else, but this game really comes down to Tony Parker — if he gets in the lane a lot, the Spurs win, if the Lakers are focused and keep him out, they win. Without Manu, he is the only one who can really create his own offense off the dribble for the Spurs.
Rotations to shooters at the three-point line, the closeouts, have to be quick. The Spurs will make the extra pass to the open man, so you have to get out there.
The Lakers length bothers Tim Duncan, but you can’t just give that man one look all night. Double sometimes (and from different places), man up others, just don’t let him get comfortable. Then go at him on offense with Pau and make him work at both ends.
Try to push the pace and get some transition baskets, but don’t be reckless about it. Push and if it is not there pull back and be patient with the offense. But there are some easy baskets to be had.
Where you can watch: 5 p.m. start on TNT nationally. Also, for a fun live blog, log on to the Wall Street Journal — yes, the WSJ — where Zach of Celtics Hub is doing the live blog. Yes, a Celtics guy, but a very smart hoops guy and fan as well. He will have some good insights.