Records: Lakers 21-9 (3rd in West), Spurs 26-4 (1st in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 112.3 (2nd in NBA), Spurs 112.9 (1st in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.0 (11th in NBA), Spurs 104.3 (9th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Spurs: Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Richard Jefferson, DeJaun Blair, Tim Duncan
Injuries: Lakers: Theo Ratliff (out); Spurs: James Anderson (out)
The Lakers Coming in: We’ve discussed the state of the Lakers at length in the last couple of days and needless to say it’s not a pretty picture. Spotty execution on both sides of the ball combined with inconsistent focus and energy has led to suspect play and poor results. This team has had two blowout losses at Staples, so what the Lakers couldn’t do at home, they now look to do on the road, traveling to San Antonio tonight to face their 2nd top level team in the last three days.
At this point, there’s no predicting what type of performance the Lakers are going to put forward in this game. For weeks now, Phil Jackson has been pointing to this game (as well as the Hornets game tomorrow) as one that is important to his team. The Spurs represent a potential playoff opponent and currently sit above the Lakers in the standings. With those factors being the case, you’d hope that the Lakers have their best effort ready for a conference foe that they have extensive history against. But after talking a good game leading up to the Heat match up and the result being altogether forgettable (at least I’m trying to forget it), there really is no telling what the Lakers will offer up tonight.
The Spurs Coming in: The Spurs boast the league’s best record and it’s not an accident. They combine discipline and flexibility to get the most out of their players and do so consistently. Greg Popovich has once again shown that by coaching his players and developing them in a manner that both plays to their strengths and fit into his schemes, he can build a contender even when many were beginning to count this group out.
However, the way that they’re getting the job done is inverted from their traditional mode of success. Rather than being a suffocating defensive team that scores enough points to get wins, the Spurs now possess the NBA’s most efficient offense with a defense that can get the stops it needs. And rather than relying on Tim Duncan to anchor their sets, they’re relying more than ever on the fantastic guard play of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Both Tony and Manu have strung together great years and it’s because Coach Pop has loosened the reigns and given them the green light to attack at will without having to slow down the tempo to accommodate an aging Duncan.
Don’t get me wrong, Duncan is still a force and his ability to get needed baskets from the low post against all types of defense a major factor to this teams’ success. But more than ever this team is blending the unique skills of their guards with the methodical precision of their big man. This isn’t the cleanest comparison, but this team has sort of moved into the phase that the Showtime Lakers did when Magic became the focal point of the team with an aged Kareem taking a backseat to the dynamic young play maker. The team is running more, going to P&R heavy sets in the half court even more often, and using more wing isolations, but still incorporating Timmy as a post threat and initiator to keep him involved. And as this shift has taken another step forward this year, the Spurs are again a contender. It seems the more things change the more they stay the same.
Spurs Blogs: As we highlighted this morning, 48 Minutes of Hell is a fantastic Spurs site that puts out top notch material every day. Give them a read and get smarter about the Spurs.
Keys to the Game: Despite the contrast leveled in the previous sections of this preview, this is a very winnable game for the Lakers. If there’s one franchise that the Lakers have experience playing, have a great respect for, and understand what it takes to beat, it’s the Spurs. You combine that with San Antonio coming off it’s worst performance of the year and the Lakers looking to redeem themselves from their recent stinker performances, and the ingredients for a great game from the Lakers are in place.
To get it done, though, the Lakers need to get back to the execution that it exhibited earlier in the season.
Offensively, the Lakers need to attack the Spurs weaknesses with off ball movement to occupy defenders while attacking quickly and decisively with the ball. This is a game where Kobe can really impact the game by coming out with an aggressive mentality to score the ball. He’s traditionally had great success against the Spurs because they really don’t have that top notch defender that can give him fits (ala Nic Batum or Sefalosha) and because of his familiarity with the Spurs’ defensive schemes, Kobe is often able to get to his spots on the floor to get off shots he’s comfortable taking. So, tonight would be a good night for aggressive Kobe to make an appearance to really set the tone in a road game.
But in the background his teammates must also understand their roles within the sets by setting good screens and cutting hard off the ball to put themselves in position to receive the ball and score for themselves when Kobe picks them out. By cutting and screening hard, the other players will not only occupy defenders and limit their ability to help, but they’ll open themselves up when the Spurs do commit any extra defenders to help on Kobe. Ultimately, I hope to see Kobe attack from both the post and from the short wing with mid range jumpers and quick drives before the defense can help on him and then pick out his mates when the Spurs send extra defenders his way.
As for the Lakers big men, I hope to see them be more active off the ball in order to get going. In recent games, most of Lamar and Pau’s games have revolved around them creating for themselves either off the dribble or in isolations from the mid and low post. Tonight, I’d like to see them use the motions of the offense better and more consistently to get the ball on the move or in space where they can be quick to take shots in the rhythm of the Triangle. I’d also like to see more of the Lakers hand-off sequences between Pau and Lamar where Gasol has the ball at the elbow and Odom comes off his shoulder for an attack move to his strong hand. The Spurs’ lack of front court quickness should enable this set to be successful and really get both LO and Pau going as any over compensation on this play will mean that Pau too can get some easy shots at the rim by faking the handoff and pivoting inside for a quick drive. Tonight really is a night where Pau can get going. Even though Timmy is one of the all time great defenders, Pau has quickness advantages and should be able to get his shots if he’s active moving off the ball decisive when he makes the catch.
Defensively, the Lakers two biggest weaknesses will be tested as the Spurs are sure to try and push the ball at every occasion (especially Parker) and they’ll also run multiple P&R’s to try and penetrate the interior of the Lakers D. While it will be easier said than done, the Lakers will have effectively get back in transition and build a wall against Parker’s one man fast breaks. Parker loves to push the ball even when he doesn’t have a man advantage and force his way to the rim so he can show off his expert ability to finish at the cup.
When defending the P&R, the Lakers will need to decide what they’re comfortable giving up and then execute their scheme consistently without losing faith. I’m hoping the Lakers make both Parker and Ginobili jumpshooters by going under screens and making them consistently make 18-20 footers to get their points. Both players are just too dangerous when they’re able turn the corner and get into paint as Parker is deadly with his floater and Ginobili is one of the craftiest finishers in the league. So even if these guys start to knock down jumpers, I’d rather start to make adjustments to contest those shots with big men hedging out while still having guards go under screens rather than give up the edge to two guys that finish so well in the paint.
In the end, though, both of these teams are familiar enough with each other’s schemes that this game will likely come down to a star (or two) from either team stepping up to seize control. Whether it’s Kobe, Gasol, and/or Odom or the Spurs big three of Duncan, Parker, or Ginobili, this game could easily turn because one or more of these guys makes the game his own. So, while role players like the improved Richard Jefferson or Ron Artest may have a good game in support of one of the stars, I do have a feeling that tonight will come down to one of the aforementioned difference makers.
Where you can watch: 5:30pm start time out west on KCAL and on NBA TV. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710am.