The three or four games that the Lakers played against the Spurs were always a part of a select few games that were an absolute must watch for the matchup. The Spurs, as the defending champions, are still a team, as a basketball fan, that you still need to consume a fair amount of during the course of a season. Stylistically, they play one of the more gorgeous brands of basketball in the league. The names are still there, too. Duncan, Ginobili, Parker — the old faces are as they always were. There’s Kawhi Leonard and a cast of role players who have bought into Popovich’s system, have a higher turnover rate, but the kind of guys brought in are the same as they ever were.
The same cannot be said about this Lakers team. All of the pieces who were there for some of the more epic clashes between to two premier franchises of this new millennium’s first decade are either gone or, as of this morning, out with a season-ending rotator cuff tear. Darius briefly discussed the injury yesterday, and there was a small sliver of hope that Bryant could have an opportunity to come back this season, but that was ruled out according to ESPN:
The Los Angeles Lakers expect star Kobe Bryant to miss the remainder of the season with a torn rotator cuff, sources told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne.
Bryant met with team doctor Steven Lombardo in Los Angeles on Friday, and Lombardo found a significant tear in the rotator cuff in his right shoulder. Bryant is expected to take the weekend to decide whether to undergo surgery and has an appointment with Dr. Neal ElAttrache, another Lakers doctor, on Monday.
Without Bryant, any luster between a once fierce rivalry has shifted to a stodgy storyline, lacking any real character. While the two never officially matched up on the hardwood, the respective careers between Bryant and Duncan have always been in an ostensible fight for the greatest of an era. There are legitimate claims for either side; the steady plateau of greatness from Duncan is as admirable as the great peaks that oftentimes make it easy to overlook the depths of Bryant’s valleys. This was a storyline that we’ve held onto for almost two decades, and tonight the story shifts from two of the game’s all-time greats to an uneven matchup of basketball teams.
The Spurs are coming off a rare blowout loss at the hands of a Chicago Bulls team that have struggled through much of January. The Bulls had won only three of their previous nine games before routing the Spurs — which saw the core of the Spurs sit out for a large chunk of the second half — meaning a more talented team is also going to be well rested and looking to bounce back from an embarrassing loss on national television.
The Spurs, have been playing some of their best basketball of the season in January. In the 10 games before their loss, they won eight of those games, with the two losses coming against a Detroit team that has been thriving without Josh Smith, and a very good Washington Wizards team.
In their last four, they’ve seen the return of Leonard, who missed the previous 15 games, and 18 games total this season. And as it has been over the last three seasons, the Spurs have absolutely thrived with Leonard on the floor. Without Leonard this season, the Spurs have played .500 basketball. With him, they’re playing .654 ball and are nine points per game better with him on the floor than off. His versatility on both sides of the ball allows the Spurs to experiment with various lineups and different looks to keep the ball moving, and allow others to concentrate in areas they excel in more than others.
For the Lakers, every loss due to injury births new opportunity. Nick Young will become the Lakers primary perimeter scorer. There will be a larger emphasis on the point guard play from Jeremy Lin and Ronnie Price. Without Bryant consuming 30 minutes per game, it leaves the door open for Jordan Clarkson to see more minutes, and more games.
The front court rotation doesn’t change, but the impact of these guys, especially against this Spurs team should be substantial. The Spurs have struggled keeping opposing bigs at bay in recent weeks — especially active, athletic bigs like Jordan Hill and Ed Davis. In the Lakers win against the Spurs, both Hill and Carlos Boozer helped tremendously with double-doubles, and the team will need that kind of impact from the front court if the Lakers are to leave San Antonio with a season series win.
A win isn’t expected, but this Lakers team has been resilient at weird times this season, and tonight is an opportunity for them to rally around some bad organizational news.
Where you can watch: 5:30 p.m. start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM Los Angeles.