A couple of days removed from the Lakers beating the Nets, they are back in action tonight at Staples to face the Spurs. The Lakers are 7-5 and tied for 4th in the conference, the Spurs are 9-3 and in 3rd. It sounds like old times and a single tear rolls down my cheek.
Of course, this isn’t old times. This is the first time in 19 seasons the Lakers and the Spurs will play a game with neither Kobe Bryant nor Tim Duncan on the roster. The Spurs, like the Borg they are, continue to roll. They are only behind the Warriors (who they have already blasted this year) and Clippers, boasting both an offense and defense in the top 10 of the league.
They do this even with our old friend Pau Gasol and old foe LaMarcus Aldridge anchoring the back line of their defense. They do this even though Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili combined average 16.5 points a game. They do this even though Danny Green has only played in 4 games this year while Johnathan Simmons (who was in the D-League just two years ago), David Lee (who cannot guard you, the person reading this), and Slo-Mo Kyle Anderson playing key bench roles.
In other words, they do this because of Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard are awesome at their jobs. Because whatever weaknesses some of the above players have, they seem to consistently play away from them and towards their strengths instead. Because regardless of who wears the jersey, this team has an identity which is based on teamwork, unselfishness, smarts, and playing hard.
The Lakers, then, will have their hands full this game. They are out-experienced and, even though this Spurs team has turned over its roster some, also trail in the familiarity department. The Spurs just get how to play together and that didn’t change because Pau Gasol or David Lee (two cerebral players who seem to fit in anywhere) joined the team.
What the Lakers do have more of, though, is youth and athleticism. Especially on the front line. Mozgov is older, but he’s not as old as Pau and offers more bounce than the Spaniard. And in Randle, Nance, and Black the Lakers have a slew of players who can run the floor, attack the offensive glass, and threaten the paint with finishes above the rim. If the Lakers hope to win this game, they will need that depth to leverage those advantages and turn them into points in the paint, fast break chances, and offensive rebounds.
The Lakers also have enough on the wing, especially if all their depth plays to their normal standard. Yes, the Spurs have Kawhi (and I will be interested in not only seeing how Deng defends him, but in who he defends on the other end) who is an MVP candidate. They still have Parker and Ginobili, and quality rotation players in Danny Green and Patty Mills. Those latter two can be dangerous from behind the arc and will need to be marked closely.
But one of the Lakers’ strengths this year has been their guards/wings. In Russell, Young, Clarkson, Lou, Ingram, and Deng the Lakers have a nice blend of youth, athleticism, savvy, and skill. They can threaten the arc and get into the teeth of the defense. It will be hard to beat Kawhi and Green off the bounce, but if the Lakers can get downhill against Pau, Aldridge, and Lee they might be able to draw some fouls or collapse the defense enough to get the Spurs into their rotations where open shots and driving lanes can open up.
That is the best case scenario, of course. The Lakers move the ball, use their egalitarian approach to offense, and wear this team down. I’m not sure the Lakers can actually achieve that against a team as well coached and as disciplined as the Spurs. But that’s the template. We’ll see how they do.
Lastly, this game starts that gauntlet of a stretch we have discussed already. Some of these games are winnable — maybe all of them are if analyzing them in a vacuum. Still, though, the Lakers are facing some tough teams and that begins tonight. More than searching for wins in these games, however, I am looking for that same competitive spirit and commitment to execution we have seen to this point in the year. If they do that, I will be fine regardless of the result.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on Spectrum Sportsnet.