The Lakers will face the Spurs in the 1st round of the playoffs and, for all intents and purposes, this is the best match up the Lakers could have hoped for. Not because the Spurs are a bad team — they finished 2nd in the West for a reason — or because there’s some underlying flaw with them that makes them beatable in a series. No, the Spurs represent the best match up for the Lakers simply because they’re not the Thunder, Nuggets, or Clippers. You see, those other teams are all young and athletic with a proven ability to outpace this Lakers’ team. There’s a frenetic aspect to playing those teams that the Lakers simply struggle with.
That’s not the case with the Spurs. They’re calculated and disciplined. They have wildcard players who can change the dynamic of any game (Ginobili and Parker, specifically), but they’re a system team that simply grinds team down with execution. That alone should give the Lakers pause and should be considered dangerous, but the fact is the Lakers are best when playing a slower game and putting a greater emphasis on each possession. And while it took some time (and some injuries) for the Lakers to become that type of team, that’s now who they are. Whether or not that will mean much when this series starts on Sunday remains to be seen. But, it certainly mattered when the teams matched up in the regular season.
So, in our initial examination of this match up, let’s take a look at the season series that was with some key numbers included.
*The Spurs won the season series 2-1, claiming wins in November and January, with the Lakers winning their most recent match up just a few days ago.
*The first game was a nail biter that came down to the final defensive possession. With the Spurs trailing in the closing seconds, the Spurs ran a nice set play to free up Danny Green and he buried a three pointer that ended up being the difference. As an aside, neither Steve Nash or Steve Blake played in this game for the Lakers. The Spurs had their full roster available.
*The second game was another close contest with the Spurs claiming a three point win by outpacing the Lakers on offense. You may remember this game as the one in which Earl Clark began to show he could be a regular rotation player. Clark was excellent in this game, doing a little bit of everything — from making jumpers to diving on the weak side for finishes at the rim, to creating off the dribble. The Spurs, however, rode Tony Parker (who was excellent after having a subpar game in the first match up) and got the win. As an aside, Pau, Dwight, and Jordan Hill all missed this game with injury (hence Clark getting major run) for the Lakers. The Spurs had every player of consequence available.
*The third game was just the other day so we don’t need to go too much into it. It was the Lakers first game after Kobe tore his achilles and the team needed a win badly to keep in front of the Jazz. The Lakers played with passion on both ends, with multiple players stepping up and got the win. On the injury front, the Lakers were missing Kobe, Nash, and Hill. The Spurs were missing Ginobili and Diaw (as well as a waived Stephen Jackson). Tony Parker was playing in only his second game back after a badly sprained ankle.
*If you’re doing the math at home, the point differential in those games was zero. The Spurs won their games by two and three points, the Lakers won theirs by five.
*Not to rub salt in the wound, but the Lakers are going to miss Kobe’s production in this series. In the two games he played against them he averaged 27.5 points, 6.5 assists (to only 1.5 turnovers), and 4 rebounds all while shooting 51.2%.
*Without Kobe, the star for the Lakers will need to be Dwight Howard who did well against the Spurs in the two games he suited up in. Dwight averaged 19.5 points on 58.3% shooting, 16 rebounds (4 offensive), and 3 blocks. He also drew an average of 8 fouls a game, an important stat considering the Spurs don’t have a lot of big man depth.
*Pau Gasol was poor on offense, but good on defense and the glass. Tim Duncan gives everyone problems (including Pau), but the Spaniard did a good job of contesting his shots and hitting the glass. Pau’s 26 total rebounds (7 offensive) in the two games he played were not quite at Dwight’s level, but very big nonetheless.
*On the Spurs’ end, no single player was incredibly impressive over the entirety of the season series. Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili all shot under 45% over the games they played. Kawhi Leonard played okay, but not great. The only Spur who performed up to his season averages was Tiago Splitter who averaged a double-double on 50% shooting. Keep in mind that these numbers (the good and the bad) come in a very small sample.
*One of the key factors to the series will be pace. In the game the Lakers won, they played at a pace factor of 93. In the game they lost on Green’s jumper, the pace was 89. In the game the Spurs pretty much controlled (but was still close), the pace factor was 103. The Spurs can play at a faster tempo and be effective, but slowing the game down is the only way for the Lakers be consistently competitive.
*The Lakers generally controlled the glass, out rebounding the Spurs by an average of 4 per game over the series. The Lakers grabbed a hair over 11 offensive rebounds a game, but surrendered nearly 10 a game to the Spurs on the other end.
*A key to the Spurs’ success was hitting from behind the arc. They made nearly 40% of their three pointers on 21 attempts a game. From the Lakers end, the good news is that only 16 of those 63 attempts came from the corners. The bad news is that they hit 8 of those 16.
*The Lakers were able to play relatively clean basketball, averaging 13.7 turnovers a game (about a full turnover less than their season average). The Spurs, meanwhile, averaged 12 turnovers a game.
There are several other key stats, but we’ll get to those in the rest of the previews we have planned over the next couple of days. The numbers suggest the Lakers have a puncher’s chance in this series, but of course those are all skewed by injuries (both recent and ones at the time of those games). Not to mention the games won’t be played on these past templates, but on new ones crafted by the head coaches where every match up will be magnified and adjustments will matter a great deal. That said, it’s easy to see why the Spurs are the Lakers’ “best” match up in these playoffs. They’ve played them close three times (winning once) under a variety of different circumstances and groups of players available. If nothing else, that should provide some hope.