Many say that the first game of a road trip sets the tone for the entire set of games a team will play on their trip. If that’s truly the case, there are four other teams that have some problems when the Lakers come to town over the next week. The Lakers came into San Antonio with a lot of questions facing them. Could they continue their winning ways against quality teams (after building a 6 game win streak on the gutter dwellers of the NBA)? Could they summon the intensity and focus that made them champions last season? Is it possible to turn up their level of play and show the rest of the league that they really are a dominant team on the court and not just on paper? I know these types of questions (and many others) were on the minds of fans and media alike, but against the Spurs we all got a glimpse of what the answer to those questions may be.
Suffocating. Strangling. Smothering. These are words that aptly describe the defense that the Lakers exhibited against the Spurs in second half of their 92-83 victory tonight. An eighteen point third quarter was outdone by a seventeen point fourth quarter. A 94.3 offensive rating with a true shooting percentage of 47% on the evening for the team from San Antonio – utterly substandard for a top ten offensive unit. I don’t think I’ve seen a better defensive stretch all season from the Lakers and they provided it with their backs against the wall as they entered the second half trailing the Spurs by eight points.
And the Lakers only trailed because they couldn’t stop George Hill or Manu Ginobili from getting to wherever they wanted to on the court. Hill lived in the paint and did an impersonation of Tony Parker that had the Spurs crowd buzzing. Hill hit floaters. He hit acrobatic layups. He hit the corner three and short jumpers with ease. He’d end the first half with 20 points and had the game’s announcers calling him a superstar in the making. And then Ginobili showed why he’s already considered a superstar. Manu was raining jumpers and abusing Lakers defenders. One step back three was followed by another. After a missed FT, the ball would again find his hands and he’d nail another long ball. Three 3′s provided the bulk of his twelve first half points and he looked like he could keep it going all night. The Spurs backcourt was simply doing whatever they wanted on offense and had the Lakers defense thoroughly frustrated.
But, despite the offensive explosion from the Spurs guards, the Lakers would keep it close. And it was mostly done on the wide shoulders of Lamar Odom. In the game preview I noted that the Spurs don’t have a defender that is capable of staying with Odom as our lefty’s ability to push the ball and move fluidly in the half court is a problem for a team that has front court rotation that features the old and/or slow legs of Duncan, McDyess, Blair, and Bonner. Well, Odom took full advantage of his athletic advantages by getting the ball in his hands and attacking the rim at every opportunity. Whether in transition or in the half court, Odom found creases in the Spurs defense and went to the rim. And when he wasn’t the player doing the shooting, he corralled offensive rebounds (3 of his 13 rebounds were off our misses) and created extra possessions for us. Odom was just everywhere, again, for the Lakers. The thing I love most about Odom’s game is how he tweaks his style of play to fit what the Lakers need most. Tonight, in a game where he had the biggest advantage of all our offensive players (save for maybe Kobe), Odom was aggressive with ball, taking 18 shots to lead the team in FGA’s, and really looked for his offense.
Odom wasn’t alone on offense though. That guy Kobe decided to have one of his most efficient offensive games of the season in this game to help out LO. On a night where Kobe didn’t get to the foul line, it didn’t really matter because his shooting stroke from all over the floor was so good. Twenty four points on 11 of 16 from the floor on 75% true shooting. Kobe ran roughshod over every Spurs defender that guarded him (5 Spurs in all tried to slow down Kobe – to no avail) and it got to the point that the Spurs were running double teams at Kobe when he was thirty feet from the basket. But that was the beauty of Kobe’s game on offense this evening. He accepted every double team and ably made passes to open teammates, setting them up for good looks. Six assists on the night for Kobe (to only 3 turnovers) and he would have had even more had Pau, Fisher, and Artest hit some of the open shots that Kobe created for them.
But, this game really was about the defense. And it all started with Artest. Around a month ago, I said that Artest deserves consideration for defensive player of the year. After tonight’s performance, I’m reiterating that sentiment. Against the Spurs he reminded everyone of the destructive force he can be on the defensive side of the ball. He hounded every player that he went up against, not only racking up the stats that show up in the box score, but also doing a ton of little things that help win games. Five steals (with two leading directly to layups where he swiped the ball and went the other way for the score) and countless other deflections don’t even tell the entire story. Not when Ron was also able to stop 3 on 2 fast breaks by pestering the ball handler and then chasing him not only out of the paint, but above the three point line. The stats also don’t show how he had players picking up their dribble and passing the ball away just to have him cease and desist his attack dog defense of them. Ron truly wreaked havoc on the Spurs offense and it’s performances like these that move the Lakers team D beyond formidable and into the elite category.
Really, there is so much to say about this game that I could go on forever. I mean, the team had 5 players in double figures. The Lakers also shot 50% from three point country, making 10 of their 20 attempts. Farmar and Brown combined for 19 points on 7 for 13 shooting. Pau Gasol, though not very good on offense (which is a change from his recent performances) helped to hold Tim Duncan to 6 points on 11 shots and blocked two of Timmy’s jumpers in key moments of the game. And while there were some things to improve upon – another poor showing from the FT line in a road game, the Spurs out rebounded us and out assisted us – the overall performance was just to strong to nit pick on any of those minor points. This was just a great win and a fantastic way to start the road trip. We can only hope this continues on Friday in OKC.