Records: Lakers 36-22 (3rd in the West), Spurs 40-15 (2nd in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.9 (11th in the NBA), Spurs 109.6 (2nd in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.8 (13th in the NBA), Spurs 103.5 (12th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Ramon Sessions, Devin Ebanks, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Spurs: Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw
Injuries: Lakers: Kobe Bryant (out); Spurs: none
The Lakers Coming in: Where to begin? Kobe is injured and will miss his 3rd straight game. The Lakers defense is trending down. Mike Brown has pulled Devin Ebanks from the depths of the bench to play in Kobe’s stead while Andrew Goudelock continues to not see any minutes. Andrew Bynum’s FG% has suffered in recent games as he struggles to deal with the varied looks defenses are sending at him. Meanwhile Pau Gasol seems to be finding his stride as the season winds down. Metta Ron-Ron is playing well and Steve Blake has started to find some aggression on offense. As a team, the Lakers can look very good for stretches (as they did in closing out the Hornets) or very bad for stretches (as they did in getting down by nearly double digits to the Hornets).
All of that was a long way of saying if you can tell me what to expect from the Lakers on from game to game – hell, from minute to minute in a game – you’re a better prognosticator than I. This team is consistently inconsistent in nearly everything they do and while that can be frustrating, it also makes every game interesting (for better or for worse). I just try to enjoy the ride the best I can, especially in a season that’s offered as many ups and downs as this one has.
The Spurs Coming in: Someone forgot to tell the Spurs they weren’t supposed to be this good. After earning a top seed in last year’s playoffs, the Spurs promptly lost in the 1st round to the upstart Grizzlies. This should have served as a blow to their confidence and their approach. Then, at the beginning of this year, Manu Ginobili broke his hand and was out for 6 weeks. This should have crippled their wing production as they were forced to rely on Danny Green (cast off from the lowly Cavs), Gary Neal, and rookie Kawhi Leonard (who was acquired via trade for the steady George Hill). When you add in Duncan continuing to age, roster changes that include a starter leaving and Boris Diaw arriving, and the turbulence of this condensed campaign, common thought would have the Spurs struggling to keep float in an ever competitive Western Conference.
Instead, they’re in 2nd place and only a game out of 1st. Instead, when everyone was writing their eulogy, they decided they’d bust through their plywood casket and tunnel back above ground like Beatrix Kiddo.
Credit Popovich’s steady hand and brilliant management of players minutes, roles, and egos. Credit Tony Parker, who once again is showing he’s one of the more impactful PG’s in a league full of difference makers at that spot. Credit Tim Duncan’s ability to fend off father time like he would a post defender for one more season. And credit all those role players who have stepped up and played well all season.
Before their most recent game (a loss to the Jazz where Popovich told Timmy, Manu, and Parker to stay at home) the Spurs had won 11 in a row. That was the 2nd time they’d done that this season.
Someone forgot to tell the Spurs they weren’t supposed to be this good.
Keys to game: Because this the first of three match ups against this team, I’m going bullet style with things I’ll be looking at tonight…
- The Spurs take the 7th most threes per game, make the 2nd most, and shoot the 2nd best percentage from deep. Their roster is littered with players who can knock down the three ball and they play every position (Parker, Neal, Green, Ginobili, Jackson, Bonner, Diaw). Long story short, the Lakers must defend the three point line well tonight, especially the corner three. Rotations must be crisp and on time. Closeouts should force their shooters to put the ball on the ground and then funnel them to Bynum and Pau who must also rotate well to challenge mid-range jumpers and shots at the rim.
- The Spurs are a P&R dominant team and use this action to set up a lot of their half court baskets. Parker is the primary handler in this set and he’s capable of turning the corner quickly to get into the paint and shoot his floater or get all the way to the rim and finish against size. The Lakers must hedge out to deny his driving lanes but must also be aware of his ability to split the hedge and burst into the paint quickly. This means proper angles must be taken to avoid giving him the corner or the split (I never said it would be easy). Rotations behind the initial hedge must be sharp. Parker (and Ginobili) are good passers out of this action and they love to suck in the D and then kick to the corners to open shooters.
- Speaking of shooters, many of them worry me but none more so than Bonner. A Laker big (likely McRoberts or Gasol) will be on Bonner most of the night and that defender will have to balance helping in the paint and sticking to him as he floats around the arc. If the Lakers get sucked into the paint too easily, Bonner will be able to fire uncontested threes at his leisure and those are shots he will knock down.
- Offensively, Bynum will need to rediscover his efficiency. He’s struggled making shots he normally does and tonight’s the night to correct that. I hope to see quick power moves after he works for deep position early in the shot clock. If he runs the floor well, he can battle Duncan and Splitter for real estate on the block and then use his size, strength, and length to get good shots.
- Bynum will also see double teams tonight and he must work out of them quickly. If he makes the easy pass it will lead to re-posts and/or good ball movement that set up his teammates for good shots. He must understand that the best thing he can do is not force the action but rather force the defense into making hard choices. His job isn’t necessarily to beat the double himself but to make the play that ends up beating the double.
- Gasol will need to keep his scoring touch going. I hope to see him use his length advantage against Diaw and his quick first step to create off the dribble when he’s isolated at the high post. Making a few jumpers will only open up his options so he must prove he can knock that shot down early and then build his attack off of that.
- Sessions must attack Parker as often as possible and must use his speed to create opportunities in the open court when they present themselves. The Spurs aren’t a good offensive rebounding team, mostly because they want to get back in transition. However, that doesn’t mean they’re not vulnerable in this area. When Bonner and Splitter are on the floor they can be run on and Sessions must recognize when he has the chance to be a one man fast break. Look for these chances most when Bonner is in the corner on offense and there’s a long rebound.
- Sessions must also be smart in the P&R. If Diaw starts out on Gasol, I’d love to see a heavy dosage of 1/4 P&R’s to make Boris be a primary defender on this action. He doesn’t have the quickness to keep Sessions in front of him AND make his rotation back to the paint or to his man (who should be popping into space).
Without Kobe the Lakers are in a bit of a pickle tonight. They’ll be missing their primary wing threat and will need their bigs and Sessions to carry the offense. That said, Ron can do damage against this team with quick post ups and by knocking down the open three pointers that will be made available to him. Barnes and Blake will also need to hit some shots as those long jumpers will keep the defense honest and make sure Sessions has room to drive and the bigs have room to operate in the post. If the ball moves and shots fall, the Lakers can play with any team (even sans Kobe) and earn this win tonight. If they defend the three and make the Spurs take and make contested long two pointers, their chances of winning are even higher.
Getting a win tonight would be a good first step in the home stretch where they’ll see this team two more times after tonight. The Lakers know what it will take: effort, energy, and execution. Let’s see them get it done.
Where you can watch: 5:30pm start on KCAL. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.