Used to be that a game between the Lakers and the Spurs was appointment viewing. Back in the day, this was a battle between perennial contenders and a preview of what could be a heated playoff match up that would determine which team would likely represent the western conference for the league championship. And while some of the principles remain — Kobe, Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, Popovich — this game is no longer that. Instead, you have the Spurs, still one of the league’s best and the reigning champs, against the 1-7 Lakers. Just typing that made an already depressing season even more so.
While they are still the champs, the Spurs don’t come into this game at anywhere near full strength. Yes, their big three + Kawhi Leonard (more on him in a bit) are all healthy, but starting Center Tiago Splitter and key reserves Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli are all out. This may not seem like a big deal to the Borg-like Spurs, but these guys are all key contributors who make several of the Spurs’ key lineups hum. Mills’ absence has seemed to especially affect this team as his scoring and ability to run Gregg Popovich’s motion-weak offense has been a major asset whenever Tony Parker is on the bench.
In saying all this, however, let’s not get all weepy for this team. While their record is only 4-3, they are coming off back to back road wins over the Clippers and the Warriors — two of the supposed contenders to the Spurs’ supremacy. In the game versus the Clipps, the Spurs offered a clinic on closing, coming from behind with a furious run in the final minutes to show once again that they cannot be counted out under any circumstances. The Warriors’ game, meanwhile, was simply the Spurs being the Spurs as shooting, key defensive stops, and overall smarts turned what was a close game into one that was decidedly not by the time the final whistle blew. In other words, this team may be missing some pieces and is not yet firing on all cylinders, but they are still very dangerous with an ability to turn it on at a moment’s notice.
What this means tonight is that the Lakers will have even less margin for error than their normally nearly nonexistent one. There is probably no team who is less inclined to forgive mistakes than San Antonio, so the Lakers mustn’t make many (any?). This starts with Jeremy Lin and Kobe Byrant.
Lin will need to avoid turnovers while still playing fast enough to try to compromise the Spurs in transition defense. He must push the ball and have nearly flawless decision making when getting into the teeth of the defense to attack. His shot/pass choices must be quick and sharp; his passes must be on time and on target. There are few teams who can be as disciplined within their team defensive schemes as the Spurs, so Lin will need to be aware of not just his man or the second line of defense, but of how his movement influences the Spurs’ defensive rotations and then make the right choices instantly. If this sounds hard, it’s because it is. We’ll see if Lin is up to it.
As for Kobe, he too must be at his best. The Spurs will throw Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard at Kobe all night and both offer quickness and smarts. Green will try to pester Kobe into taking tough shots all night and will hedge off and recover with speed to try and keep Kobe off balance. Kobe may have success against Green in the post, but will need to act quickly lest the help come and throw off his attack. As for Leonard, he brings everything Green does but with more size, better length, and extreme dexterity. He can challenge Kobe’s shots without having to be in great position but has the foot speed and anticipation to always be where he is supposed to be. Kobe would do well to try and get Leonard off balance in the P&R, but even that isn’t likely to deter the reigning Finals MVP from defending well.
What this means is that the Lakers will need to get some strong performances from others to be able to score enough points to stay in this game. Jordan Hill will need to knock down his jumper and do his normal work on the offensive glass. Ed Davis will need to be his normal efficient self, but while finding a way to use a few more possessions. Carlos Boozer will need to hit his jumpers and try to get to the line more than his normal output. It would also be nice of the “new” Wes Johnson hit a few threes.
Even if all this happens, however, the Lakers will still need to get stops. The Spurs punish defenses with expert ball and player movement. They make passes in rhythm and score at ease when defenses sleep off the ball. Further, when plays break down, Parker, Ginobili, Duncan, and Leonard can all isolate and score at an efficient clip. For every team in the league, this can turn into a nightmare scenario. For the worst defensive team in the league, they may be done before the game even gets started.
In saying all this, however, the Lakers will need to compete and let the chips fall. Every night this group plays hard. If they can combine that with more smarts than they have displayed in obtaining their 1-7 record, this game could be closer than anticipated. But even if it’s not, at least I get to see Kobe and Timmy on the floor together again. After all these years, that will still get me to tune in.
So maybe it’s still appointment viewing after all.
Where you can watch: 7:00pm start time on ESPN and TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.