Records: Lakers 52-18 (1st in West), Spurs 42-27 (7th in West, 7.5 games behind Lakers)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 106.4 (11th in NBA), Spurs 107.3 (9th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 100.2 (4th in NBA), Spurs 102.3 (9th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Spurs: George Hill, Manu Ginobili, Richard Jefferson, Tim Duncan, Antonio McDyess
The Lakers Coming in: Can the winning streak continue against good teams? That is the question as the Lakers start their road trip tonight in San Antonio. It won’t be easy with Bynum out, but the Lakers need to rally together and start to round into form for the playoffs. After the Wizards game, Phil mentioned that he’d like to see a 5-0 road trip in order to build that momentum, but to also keep Denver and Dallas at bay. However, since that time he’s backed off of those statements as both the Mavs and the Nuggs have had some missteps in their recent games that have created a bit more of a cushion for the Lakers in the standings. Will the Lakers relax now that their coach has put the whip away or will they keep their focus? That is the other question. We’ll see tonight.
The Spurs Coming in: The Spurs have won 9 of 12 games in March and seem to be finding their stride as the post season approaches. However, if you look a bit closer at that record, you’ll see that the Spurs are beating bad teams and losing to good ones. Their nine wins come against the likes of the Knicks, Clippers, T’Wolves, Hornets, and Warriors and their three losses were against the Cavs, Magic, and Hawks. So, it’s tough to know how good this Spurs team is right now. To their credit they did outlast the Thunder in OKC on Monday night, which is a quality win. (On a side note, yes, this is similar to what the Lakers have done lately. So, this is a big game for both teams as both want to prove that their winning ways are not only the product of the schedule makers.)
Normally, when you talk about the Spurs the first names that come up are Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili. Well, as we enter tonight’s contest, Parker is out injured with a broken finger on his shooting hand and Duncan, while playing solid ball, may finally be wearing down after carrying this team on his back all season. That said, count Timmy out at your own peril. That leaves Manu. And he’s doing just fine, thank you, putting up great numbers of late and controlling games like the Manu of old. Over his last five games, Ginobili has averaged 24 points and 5 assists with a TS% of 64%. This includes a 38 point and 6 assist explosion against the Hawks where he buried 5 three pointers. And speaking of the long ball, he’s shooting 45% from three for in March and 88% from the line. To quote Kobe, that’s a bad man.
Keys to game: While missing Bynum will somewhat restrict the Lakers game plan, playing against the Spurs is nothing new for Phil Jackson’s Lakers. These teams, directed by these coaches, have faced each other 3-4 times a year for almost a decade and there are no secrets between the teams. That means that execution on the little things will be the difference in the game. Can the Lakers protect the ball? Will the Spurs be able to effectively slow the ball in transition? Executing the game within the game will be key for both teams tonight.
One thing I’m interested in seeing tonight is who matches up with the red hot Ginobili. Recently, Artest has covered the other team’s best wing player regardless of position. He guarded Wade and Tyreke Evans even though they play shooting and point guard, respectively. If that trend continues tonight, Ron will match up with Manu leaving Kobe on Jefferson. So, if this is the case expect a slug fest between Ron and Manu where both players use their expertise in using angles to their advantage while also fighting to establish the position that they want to attack their opponent. Both Manu and Ron love to use space to their advantage – Ron by crowding offensive players and Manu by using his step back moves and side step dribbles to cross up defenders – to rule over their opponent. So whoever wins this battle within the match up will have the upper hand. But Ron (or any other defender) won’t be going at Ginobili alone. In the absence of Parker, Manu has taken up the mantle as the primary creator in P&R situations so our bigs will need to hedge on Manu while not over extending in a way that lets the Argentinian split the double team and get into the teeth of the defense. Surround, corral, and then recover needs to be the theme when defending the P&R tonight. Also, I mentioned above Manu’s accuracy from behind the arc. Marking him behind the three point line will be a key tonight and the Lakers should be extra aware of his want to drive hard to his right and and then step back for the long jumper.
On offense, aggressive Kobe may be in the house tonight. In the past, Kobe has relished facing the Spurs and has found a comfort zone in attacking San Antonio’s help schemes. The Spurs are a defense that will give up the mid-range jumper as they prefer to chase teams off the three point line and then funnel penetration to Duncan who is an expert at contesting without fouling. However, it just so happens that Kobe is king of mid-range and has hurt the Spurs game after game, year after year by using his one dribble pull up jumper as a key weapon against them. Kobe’s making 45.5% of his two point jumpers from 10-23 feet and he’ll get plenty of chances at that exact shot tonight. Also expect Kobe to go down to the low post on the weakside and try to punish whatever member of the Manu, Jefferson, Mason, Bogans quartet that is guarding him tonight.
The other key to this game will be the performance of our third and fourth offensive threats against their’s. If Kobe and Manu play close to a draw and Pau/Duncan do the same, the key will lie in who wins the offensive matcups of Artest/Odom vs. Hill/Jefferson. Traditionally, the Spurs don’t really have a player that can guard LO as McDyess and Blair don’t have the size (Blair) or the foot speed (Dyess) to deal with our versatile lefty. If Odom can secure defensive rebounds and push the ball against a transitioning Spurs defense, it will go a long way in not letting San Antonio’s defense get set and execute their half court D. We also need Ron to continue to make his jumper and to use his strength advantage to earn trips to the foul line. I’ve given up hope that Ron will show any improvement in his ability to finish efficiently in the paint, but if he’s not finishing nor getting to the FT line, it’s almost a waste of a possession. As for Hill/Jefferson, we need Kobe (or Ron) to mark him well (especially on his penetration) and for our guards to slow down the ever improving second year player. In Parker’s absence, Hill has really stepped up as a vialbe scoring option and is using some of Parker’s pattened moves by getting out in transition and finishing well in the lane. At the end of the night, look at the plus/minus numbers for Odom and Hill and I bet they’ll tell a big part of the story of who won this game.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start on KCAL and nationally on ESPN. Also on ESPN Radio 710am