Records: Lakers 44-19 (3rd in West), Spurs 51-11 (1st in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.5 (3rd in NBA), Spurs 111.6 (2nd in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.6 (8th in NBA), Spurs 103.9 (7th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Spurs: Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Richard Jefferson, Tim Duncan, DeJuan Blair
Injuries: Lakers: Theo Ratliff (out), Matt Barnes (questionable), Derek Fisher (probable); Spurs: none
The Lakers Coming in: The six straight wins have been good. The fact that in those six wins the Lakers’ defense has moved up from 10th to 8th in efficiency rating is a testament to the fact that the team has been dialed in on that side of the ball. Bynum and Artest have been real difference makers on D, anchoring the perimeter and interior respectively and making the lives of wings and bigs as difficult as possible whether camping beyond the arc or penetrating to the rim. And while there have still been some lapses, the fact that the Lakers have been able to lock down opponents and stay in games defensively bodes well for this last stretch of the season.
Where the Lakers have been struggling in the past couple of games is on offense. Against both the Timberwolves and the Bobcats the Lakers had little luck hitting shots from the outside and didn’t show enough of a commitment to getting the ball to Gasol and Bynum in the post to compensate. And while Kobe has been able to get inside both off the dribble and when posting to get his own shots, he hasn’t been earning many trips to the foul line nor generating many easy looks for his mates. Besides a lack of commitment to getting the ball to the bigs, ball and player movement has also been inconsistent and the overall offense has suffered for it. In the end, the Lakers have done enough on offense to win games I’d love it if they found their stride on O as they have on D in recent games. Hopefully that starts against the Spurs.
The Spurs Coming in: When a team has only lost 11 times in 62 games they’re always playing well. I could gush on and on about this team but their most recent game against Miami really exemplifies what the Spurs are capable of. In their 30 point thrashing of the Heat, the Spurs made 17 of their 28 three point attempts while also scoring 46 points in the paint and 22 points on fast breaks. They showed tremendous balance on offense by having eight players reach double figures with no player taking more than 15 shots (Ginobili) and seven players besides Manu shooting at least 7 times. They moved the ball expertly in the half court and punished the Heat in the open court by pushing the ball at every turn. Really, they played like the ultimate team with every player not only contributing but with each man looking out for the next one with the team’s success seemingly driving every action. And that’s how it’s been for most of this season. Greg Popovich has them playing fantastic ball and even when things look like they may go against them it ends up working out, with the most recent example being a calf injury that was supposed to sideline Tony Parker for two weeks but instead only costing him two games. Such has been this season for the Spurs. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, but in this case the Spurs are actually both.
Keys to game: When playing a team as good and as well coached as the Spurs there are so many keys to the game because there are so many things to worry about and to account for.
On defense the Lakers must simultaneously limit penetration by Parker and Ginobili while also recovering to the three point line in order to contest shots by Neal, Jefferson, and Bonner. The Lakers must show well on P&R’s when Parker has the ball but not hedge too hard so as to be split by his dribble and give him an easy path to the rim. The Lakers must get back in transition and build a wall to block off the paint but also mark shooters in transition so that three pointers aren’t given up in rhythm to very capable shooters. Oh, and slowing that Duncan guy in both post ups and shallow wing isolations are also a priority.
Luckily, the Lakers have the personnel to do these things. It will just take discipline and focus on defense to get the job done. Artest will likely get the nod against Manu and the key with him is to make him a jump shooter. Manu won’t just settle for the J, however, so keeping him to one side of the floor on the dribble is a secondary priority. Manu is at his best driving to the middle from either side of the floor so if Ron can keep him penetrating to the sideline and along the baseline into help, it will go a long way in limiting his success. As for Parker, Fisher will have his hands full but he too should be force to make jumpers as often as possible. Obviously Parker is a master at getting into the paint but I’d like to see Fisher dare him to take 18 footers by going underneath screens and sagging off him to tempt the open J rather than playing up and allowing him to penetrate the ball.
Slowing the Spurs transition game will be a bit more difficult, but operating with sound offensive principles when attacking the Spurs D is a good way to help that cause. The Lakers mustn’t rush when looking for their shots but instead need to be patient and probe the Spurs D for the best available look. While the Spurs have a top 10 defense, this isn’t the stingy D that can suffocate opponents on the regular. The Lakers need to space the floor and work the interior both by entering the ball into the post and by penetrating the ball as often as possible. Gasol should be able to get good looks against Blair early on and Bynum should also get some touches against Duncan where his superior size and length has given Timmy issues in the past. Kobe, meanwhile, should look to attack off the bounce and get the ball inside 12 feet where he can decide to either take his pull up jumper or get all the way to the rim to finish inside.
Besides attacking off the dribble and in the post, the Lakers also need to attack the offensive glass. The Spurs have the 12th best defensive rebounding rate in the league but can still be hurt on their defensive glass. When Duncan goes to the bench and any combination of Bonner, Blair, and McDyess are in the game the Lakers need to be relentless in going after their own misses to both earn extra shots and delay the Spurs run outs going in the other direction. Besides the usual suspects of Bynum, Gasol, and Odom, this is a game where I think Ron and Kobe can also do some damage on the offensive glass by working well off the ball within the Triangle and then working for position when the ball goes up. Ron especially has a size and strength advantage over Jefferson and can use that bulk to his advantage by slashing to the rim on O and then camping underneath when shots go up.
In the end, I could mention at least 5 more things that could end up being factors in this game but will stop here and just say that this is an important game. It’s not likely that the Lakers will catch the Spurs in the standings but they can build some momentum against their biggest challenger out West by earning a win. The last game between these two teams went down to the buzzer and a mental error on a box out cost the Lakers the W. This game gives the Lakers the chance to not only hang tough with the Spurs but to also make up for that mistake last time and get a win. A win that will inspire more confidence and keep the Lakers momentum going into the tough week of hoops that lies ahead. Here’s to the road team getting it done.
Where you can watch: 12:30pm start time out West on ABC. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710am.