The Lakers have won two in a row and all is right in the world. Or, at least, the Lakers world. They’re having fun, they’re winning games, and their new starting lineup just got done punishing the Kings. This is great!
Tonight, the Lakers play the Spurs. The Spurs are not the Hawks (league’s worst record) nor are they the Kings (tied with the Lakers and Grizzlies for the worst record in the West) — the two teams the Lakers just beat. These are the Spurs, they of the 3rd best record in the West and the 5th best record in the league. They have the game’s best coach and even when they’re without key players (which has been often this year), they win anyway.
They win anyway. This is who they are.
So, you know, celebrate the Kawhi Leonard being ruled out tonight if you want. Rejoice that Rudy Gay is also out, that Tony Parker is doubtful, and that Danny Green is questionable. These are 4 of the team’s best players and if you feel good about it, I wouldn’t blame you.
I, however, think better than to have positive feelings around having to play the Spurs. Pop could do a roster swap with the Austin Torros for tonight’s game and when they all walk out of the tunnel wearing Spurs jerseys, I’d not be happy to play the game.
So, if you came here for silver linings, you came to the wrong place. I have a healthy fear of the Spurs and the Lakers should too. In fact, if they do, it will serve them well because it should conjure the right combination of angst and determination to go out there and play hard, focused basketball. Which is what they’ll need tonight to be competitive, much less to win the game.
If you want X’s and O’s specifics or matchups to watch, I’d say it’s less about the individual players the Spurs throw at you, but instead how those pieces blend their respective talents to build 5-man groupings that simply know how to play within Pop’s schemes.
So, rather than worry about Aldridge’s mid-range talent or how he loves the left block and to go middle for drives, Pau’s ability to play inside/outside as a scorer or how he passes the ball, Patty Mills scoring punch, or Manu’s age defying gamesmanship, the Lakers need to know that on every Spurs offensive possession they will pressure the stress points of their defense. They will put the Lakers defense in decision making situations and, if they make the wrong decision or, even, make the right decision too slowly, they can (and likely will) be punished for it. The Spurs will swing the ball, they will drive and kick, and they will repeat these things until there is an open shot to be taken.
The Lakers, then, will need to be smart and be disciplined. They’ll need to be quick to react, but even more than that, they’ll need to see plays a beat ahead in order to be positioned in a way where they’re ready to respond to the next action and halt the flow of San Antonio’s ball and player movement.
Offensively, the Lakers need to push the ball and avoid the Spurs getting set up into their half court schemes. San Antonio will try to counter this by not sending players to the offensive glass, but the Lakers can still pressure them in the open court with quick hit aheads (hi, Lonzo) and by having their bigs run hard (what up, Randle). The Spurs have the league’s 2nd ranked defense for a reason, so any advantage the Lakers can gain by making Gasol and Aldridge play behind the ball, the better.
Once in the half-court, the Lakers must be smart and hunt efficient shots. The Spurs want to keep the ball in front of them and force teams into low efficiency areas of the floor while avoiding fouls. The Lakers love to hunt points in the paint and, while that will need to continue in this game, they must not force the action vs. the Spurs’ length. Making kick-out passes when appropriate and following those up with additional ball movement and made 3’s can keep the Spurs off-balance and, hopefully, put them into more rotations which open up the lanes to create good scoring opportunities at the rim.
Even if all these things go the Lakers way, a win will be difficult. The Spurs are a well coached veteran team with some really good players (even when accounting for injury). They play hard and smart and show a level of scheme commitment and understanding all coaches would love to get from their players. Beating that type of team is hard. The Lakers will see that tonight. So, I’m more hoping for a competitive game that is fun to watch than anything else. We’ll see how it goes.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TNT.