Records: Lakers 34-15 (2nd in West), Spurs 40-8 (1st in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 112.6 (2nd in NBA), Spurs 111.3 (3rd in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.1 (10th in NBA), Spurs 103.8 (7th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Spurs: Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Richard Jefferson, Tim Duncan, DeJuan Blair
Injuries: Lakers: Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff (out), Andrew Bynum (questionable); Spurs: Matt Bonner (out)
The Lakers Coming in: Despite the drama surrounding the team and the fact that the principle characters are now trying to make it go away, the Lakers have basketball games to play. Going into Houston, some of those same topics were being discussed and the Lakers came out and got a much needed win. So, while I’d love to indulge folks with more talk about players changing jerseys or discuss what former Laker legend is suggesting solutions, I think the focus should be on the players actually, you know, playing better and winning games.
And that brings me to Kobe and Gasol’ quotes surrounding Pau being a “black swan” by playing more aggressive basketball and taking it to whoever he’s being guarded by. And while Kobe’s comments produced some great photoshop work, I think the point made is a key one. As we pointed out the other day, Gasol is not far removed from being described as the most skilled big man in the league. A player with his talent needs to be aggressive more often as his ability and skill can change the complexion of a game against any opponent on the schedule. If nothing else, here’s hoping that an ugly win against the Rockets brought back the concept that the Lakers have 2 of the best players in the league and that both players need to take it upon themselves to show it each night. More than anything else, that will aid the Lakers cause in improving over the rest of this season.
The Spurs Coming in: What can be said about the way the Spurs are playing that we don’t already know? I mean, they’re the best team in the league record wise, and are on a pace to produce a 70 win campaign. Their starters play the least amount of minutes in the league but they don’t seem to lose any ground in games where role players consistently step up and perform. It’s a testament to the greatness of the leadership from their big 3 and Greg Popovich that this team – once thought closed out of truly contending – is back this season as a terror. They truly are the best of the best right now.
That said, they are coming off a loss. Downed at the Rose Garden by the Blazers, the Spurs are looking to bounce back and not make this losing thing a trend. In that game they struggled to contain LaMarcus Aldridge (no shame in that considering his tremendous play of late) who dropped 40 points on them hitting a variety of inside and outside shots against every defender that checked him. The question coming into tonight is if the Spurs are ready to give up a couple of games in a row as they just now start their infamous rodeo road trip (which is quite similar the the Grammy roadie the Lakers will start) or if that game was just a standard bump in the road for a team that has to lose every once in a while.
Keys to game: Phil Jackson has said that Bynum wants to play tonight so I have him in the Lakers starting lineup. Whether that holds or not will remain to be seen, but honestly I don’t think it should affect the Lakers game plan one bit tonight.
Offensively the Lakers need to attack inside. If Gasol really did get the memo after the Houston game, I think he needs to be featured on offense so he can attack Duncan and/or Blair by going to the post as often as possible. Even when he catches the ball at the elbow or short wing, I’d really like to see him attack the rim off the dribble to try and get closer to basket and use his jump hook from both the left and right side. If Pau can get going early, it will go a long way towards easing the offensive load of Kobe and the rest of the team.
That said, the other key to the game is that the Lakers actually commit to running their sets and not being stagnant. In the Rockets game, the Lakers went isolation late in regulation and it cost them the baskets they needed to avoid overtime. In the extra period, they rectified this by working Kobe more off the ball and allowing him to play in two man games with Pau on the weakside. Whether or not Bynum plays, Odom will be key tonight as an offensive initiator. In the half court, Odom can play in the two guard front and be a guy that makes post entries and slashes off the ball. In the open court he needs to push the ball and force Blair and Duncan to pick him up high and then use his quickness to attack the rim. This will allow him to get shots going to the basket and free up shooters and offensive rebounding lanes as the Spurs help.
Defensively, the Lakers need to think outside in. Yes Duncan is a threat and the ballast of their attack. But the explosive action comes from Parker and Ginobili. They’re comfortable working in isolation and the P&R and the Lakers must have their heads about them in how they need to help and recover in order to shut down the lane while still recovering to outside shooters. The Lakers also must be aware to help the helper as the Spurs feasted on the offensive glass the last game because no one recovered to the paint to block out when the Laker bigs rotated on drives by the Spurs wings. Rotating on D to avoid getting killed by the three ball from Jefferson, Neal, and Hill will also be key tonight, so again, think outside in and look to put the clamps on the Spurs wings.
I don’t need to explain too much about why this game is very important to the Lakers. They trail the Spurs in the standings and you only get so many chances to gain a full game on the team in front of you. Tonight is one of those nights. Also, the Lakers record against the best teams in the league could use a pick me up and there’s no better team to earn that agaisnt than the one with the best overall record. After the Houston game, Kobe said that they owe the Spurs a butt kicking. Here’s hoping they make it happen tonight.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start on TNT. Also listen on ESPN Radio, 710am.