Sunday night marked the arrival of a new, long-term houseguest in Lakerland – the ghost of roster future.
In the absence of Kobe Bryant – a scenario initially not expected to come to fruition for handful of years – all eyes will be on Dwight Howard to recapture his MVP form of years past and anchor the team at the both ends of the floor. In short, after having the luxury to allow Howard to acclimate to his new surroundings and battle back from injuries at his own pace, the Lakers now need their franchise center to act the part. Sunday night marked Howard’s first game as the team’s long-term anchor, and Dwight delivered, devastating the Spurs to the tune of 26 points, 17 rebounds (6 offensive) and three blocks (plus a dubious goaltending call on a Tim Duncan hook I the lane), flashing his once-unrivaled speed and power in the post, and truly dominating on the glass. The result from a team perspective was no less encouraging, as the Lakers, in the maiden voyage without their superstar and leader, took a major step in sealing the postseason berth has at times seemed so elusive, with a 91-86 victory over the San Antonio Spurs.
However, Dwight was not alone in elevating his game in Kobe’s absence. Steve Blake turned in crowning performance as a Laker, connecting on four of eight 3-point attempts en route to 23 points, to which he added five rebounds, four assists and a pair of steals. Providing a much-needed spark off of the bench was Antawn Jamison, who kicked in 15 points, burying three of five 3-pointers himself, and grabbed six rebounds in 20 minutes of burn. Lending additional support were Jodie Meeks, who despite hitting just three of 11 shots, hit a massive pair of 4th quarter 3-pointers, as well as Pau Gasol, who simply could not get a thing to drop. However, despite a putrid 3-for-17 showing from the field, Pau left a positive mark on the game with 16 rebounds (5 offensive) and three blocked shots of his own.
It must be said that the Spurs were far from their best on Sunday night, with just two (Tim Duncan and Matt Bonner) of 10 players that took the floor making at least half of their shots. Duncan, though outquicked by Dwight in the early going and unable to keep him off of the glass, played a fantastic game, scoring 23 points on 11-of-22 shooting (including a pair of thunderous throwdowns in the second half), grabbing 10 rebounds, handing out four assists and swatting three shots. Of historical significance, with his final bucket of the night, the greatest power forward the league has ever seen ran his career tally to 23,759, good for 22nd on the NBA’s all-time list, two points ahead of the previous holder of that distinction, Charles Barkley. Unfortunately for Duncan, who, like pre-injury Kobe, is more than a decade and half in and still playing some of the best ball of his career (24.4 PER, 21.2 points and 11.8 rebounds per 36 minutes and career-best defensive rebound and block rates), he received little support from his normally reliable running mates.
Chief among the struggling Spurs were Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard, who shot a combined 2-for-15 from the floor (1-for-10 for Parker, 1-for-5 for Leonard) and combined for just 12 points, though it worth noting that the duo combined for 11 rebounds and 12 assists. Also, despite managing a double-double of his own (11 and 10), Tiago Splitter missed eight of the 13 shots he attempted, more than a couple of which were seemingly easy layups. Danny Green managed an identical 5-for-13 from the field, hitting just two of seven 3-point attempts, while Nando de Colo, Cory Joseph and DeJuan Blair managed just four points on 2-for-11 shooting. Now, it’s clearly unreasonable to expect two of the Spurs’ top three starters to shoot worse than 15% from the field while one of their starting bigs blows numerous chances at the rim, but a fair amount of credit is owed to the Lakers’ perimeter defenders, who challenged the Spurs’ on their 3-point attempts, forced an inordinate number of long 2-point jump shots and, in perhaps the greatest testament to their performance, held the Spurs to a single unsuccessful corner 3-point attempt.
That the sustainability of some of the offensive efforts can be called into question, and the Spurs did little to help themselves in a game that was certainly winnable are true, but tonight, wholly irrelevant. With the playoffs in the balance, in the absence of their emotional talisman and offensive catalyst, the Lakers put forth excellent effort at both ends, and ultimately had enough to gut out a massive victory against an elite Spurs team playing for its own playoff positioning, setting the stage for a win-and-you’re-in showdown with the Houston Rockets Wednesday night at Staples.