We’ve looked at the regular season series and have also explored some of the key themes to look for on offense and defense. However, while history, talent, and execution all play a vital role in who wins a playoff series they are also decided by other variables. Sometimes, it’s the non-star player who can make his mark (think Trevor Ariza in the Lakers run to the 2009 championship) or a strategy shift (like Rick Carlisle inserting J.J. Barrea into the starting lineup in the 2011 Finals) or some other key match up that turns the tide.
With that in mind, here are a few X-factors that may come into play and make the ultimate difference in this series…
Coming in, there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind who the superior coach is. Greg Popovich has tasted championship glory four times and always seems to have his team well prepared and ready to compete at the highest level. There’s literally no bad words to say about the man and I won’t attempt to try and discredit him in any way. If he wins the coaching battle, it won’t be a surprise. In fact, it’s expected.
That said, Mike D’Antoni, even with all the hits he’s taken this year, is no slouch with the whiteboard and in diagramming a workable plan. D’Antoni is also no stranger to facing the Spurs in the post-season, with epic battles in his past that shaped the narrative of his career. D’Antoni will need to call on some of that experience against his old foe on the opposing sideline to try and create some advantages for his team over the course of the series.
Maybe that means deploying a seldom used lineup or going deeper into his bench. Their are already whispers that Steve Blake will join Steve Nash in the starting lineup (should Nash be available). The Blake/Nash backcourt duo hasn’t been the best defensive pairing this season but if Blake can hold his own against Tony Parker (a big if), Nash can slide over to defend Danny Green (who’s mostly just a spot up player) and it not be a huge risk. That approach may not end up working out (if it’s even explored at all), but it’s these types of moves that can make a difference and D’Antoni will need to come up with more of them to guide his team to victory in this series.
Jamison has been the Lakers most consistent bench player all season. So, it wouldn’t necessarily surprise if he had a solid series whether the Lakers are able to upset the Spurs or not. That said, Jamison offers a unique versatility offensively that can be a major weapon against this version of the Spurs. Remember, Boris Diaw is unlikely to play in this series. That leaves the Spurs — who also waived Stephen Jackson — surprisingly thin in the front court behind Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter, especially in regards to players who actually match up with Jamison well.
When Jamison comes in at PF, he’ll likely either be matched up with Matt Bonner or DeJuan Blair. Both aren’t used to defending on the perimeter or a player who offers the inside-outside game of Jamison. Jamison can be especially effective as a pick and roll/pick and pop player if defended by either of these players and if he can effectively knock down his jumper it only makes him more dangerous when slashing or attacking off the dribble against a closing out defender. And, if the Spurs decide to defend Jamison with a smaller player, he can try to work the offensive glass or get into the post on weak side duck-ins. Obviously depending too much on Jamison to be a difference maker can be problematic. And if he’s asked to carry the team in any given game the Lakers are in trouble. But as a change of pace player who comes in for Pau, he may be able to exploit the Spurs’ reserve big men.
It’s funny to describe a mainstay of the Spurs’ success and a key performer who has real name recognition as an X-factor, but it’s true. Ginobili hasn’t had the best season — 11.4 points per game in a little over 23 minutes a night — and is coming off a hamstring injury that kept him out of the lineup for 9 of the Spurs final 10 games (he played 12 minutes and scored 2 points in the season finale).
Is Ginobili fully healthy? Is he ready to be the heavy minute contributor that the Spurs will need to make a big run in these playoffs? I’m sure the sense is that the Spurs have enough talent on the wing to beat the Lakers even if Manu isn’t 100%. And that’s likely true. But if Parker struggles (remember he’s had his own injury issues of late as well), the Spurs are suddenly lacking in another off the dribble creator that can hurt the defense in a variety of ways. Typically that player is Ginobili. If he’s ready to go, he can be the hammer off the bench that the Lakers don’t have an answer for. But if he’s limited, the Spurs may struggle to create the dribble penetration that their offense thrives off of.
There are several other keys that I think will be important: will Meeks hit his open shots? If Nash returns, will D’Antoni still play Morris as a defensive substitute against Parker? Can Earl Clark play with enough energy and activity (while hitting some of his shots) to make a difference? The answers to these questions — especially if they go in the Lakers’ favor — could all impact the series positively for the Lakers. Of course, if any of the Spurs’ shooters are hitting shots or Blair is getting after the offensive glass or Splitter has a strong defensive game against Dwight and/or Pau, the Spurs can easily find themselves in the driver’s seat.
That’s the beauty of these things, you never know who will step up, you just know someone will and it will make a big difference.