Whether or not you believe in statement games, the Lakers certainly made a statement today versus the Spurs. By controlling the game from the opening tip and cruising to a 99-83 win (a score that didn’t reflect just how handily the Lakers controlled this contest, by the way), the Lakers moved to their post all-star record to 7-0 and showed that they’re a team ascending as the regular season fades and the playoffs inch closer. So while this one win counts the same as any of the other W’s that have racked up over the course of the season, the difference is that this game showed what the Lakers are capable of doing when motivated and dialed in on both sides of the ball.
There were so many positives to take away from this game, it’s difficult to know where to start to praise the team.
Actually, that’s a lie. I know exactly where to start. The Lakers defense was tremendous. Again. In the first half they held the Spurs to only 37 points and an offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) of 88.1. Before the game I mentioned that the Lakers needed to keep Parker and Ginobili to one side of the floor when they looked to penetrate while still closing out on shooters camped behind the arc. The Lakers executed this plan to perfection as Artest and Fisher hounded the Spurs primary ball handlers into Andrew Bynum’s long armed challenges at the rim time and time again. All day neither Parker nor Ginobili (combined 9-24 FG’s for 20 points) found it tough sledding getting to basket without a Laker defender on their respective hips and a big man stepping up to challenge their shot. In fact, after the first few possessions it was tough for them to find a lane to the rim at all as most their shots ended up being contested jumpers where the Lakers wings were able to shadow them close enough so that a driving lane never developed and all that remained was an 18 footer that ended up being challenged.
But even when the Spurs were able to penetrate to draw the D and the ball got kicked out to Richard Jefferson, Matt Bonner, or Gary Neal, the Lakers rotated quickly and decisively to run those shooters off the three point line and into shots over the top of helping bigs. Numerous times we saw Jefferson and Bonner face a hard close out only to put the ball on the ground with no where to really go but into the waiting arms of back-line Laker defenders. On several occasions both players tried awkward flip shots at the rim over the outstretched arms of Bynum and Gasol with no success. Really, the Lakers’ D was just suffocating as they left few cracks out on the perimeter and even fewer near the rim.
(On a related note, here is the part of the recap where I again, as it’s becoming a habit of late, must heap praise on young ‘Drew. Every time the Spurs sniffed the painted area he was there to contest the shot and either block it outright or alter it enough that it fell harmlessly aside. By the time the 3rd quarter came around it seemed that the Spurs had resolved themselves to only taking short jumpers or floaters as getting all the way to the rim without Bynum coming over to alter the shot was as likely as winning the lottery. Plus, he was then active on the defensive glass tallying 11 on the day and out-hustling every player to the ball whenever it floated into open space. On twitter I compared Bynum to some 7’0″ version of a Reggie Evans/Jo Noah hybrid as the young man was everywhere all the time. He was simply fantastic. My apologies for the gushing but he was simply that good. Oh, and did I mention that Tim Duncan was only 1-7 for 2 points on the night and that Bynum was the primary defender?)
Meanwhile, on offense, the Lakers were nearly as good as their defense was in the first half. In order for the Triangle to run effectively, spacing is probably the most important ingredient. Against the Spurs, we were treated to a clinic in generating good spacing and we were all witness to how that spacing can create great looks for the team. With Kobe and Fisher setting the tone with good entries to the post and the wing and then cutting and screening hard off the ball the Lakers were able to move into their proper positions and then run their sets with fantastic efficiency. On multiple possessions the ball moved quickly and without hesitation from the wing to the post to the opposite side of court with a wide open shot the final result. And when the ball was shot the players that had never quit moving into position for the next pass were then able to get position for offensive rebounds. I mentioned the Lakers’ defensive efficiency of 88.1, but their offensive efficiency was a dynamic 154.8 as they did everything right. Seriously, take a look at the play by play information in the first quarter. Those made shots that are detailed were nearly all reflective of fantastic team play where each Laker did a great job of making the right read and then not only executing correctly but doing so with excellent timing so as to not break the rhythm that they were building. After not too long the Lakers were up nearly 30 points and that was, essentially, the ball game.
Where the Lakers didn’t do that well though, was in closing this game out with the same intensity and focus they used to build that big lead. Rather than continue to pound the ball inside and run their sets and seek out the best shot the Lakers second unit seemed content on just taking the first good shot that presented itself. This meant a lot of early jumpers with little ball or player movement. When the ball did move it was just swung around the perimeter rather than thrown into the post where the team could run their actions and set up the wide open looks they’d gotten most of the game. It got so bad that Phil – in a 20 point game mind you – went back to Kobe, Fisher, and Gasol with 5 minutes left rather than letting the Barnes, Brown, and Blake group continue to allow the lead to get cut into. And even though the game was never in doubt (the Spurs were playing their 3rd stringers at this point) the message was clearly sent. After the game Kobe even said that Phil was “sending the 2nd unit a message that even in a blowout they need to play hard” and that was a message that was delivered loud and clear. And while I was a bit uncomfortable with seeing starters in the game at that juncture and under those circumstances (I always have my concerns with injury), I must say that I was happy that Phil did what he could to get his point across.
In the end, though, when the biggest concern in a game against the West leading Spurs is how the backups managed a blowout lead in the 4th quarter I’d say that the team had a pretty damned good day. Overall the Lakers were sharp, focused, and it led to a dominant team performance where every player contributed positively. Forget the individual stats here, the fact is that a team showed up in San Antonio today and they delivered a beat down. And for that, I’ll live with some mishaps near the end. After all, a game like this is something to build on with a tough week of hoops ahead and the season nearing its end.