Records: Lakers 14-2, Spurs 6-11
Offensive ratings: Lakers 110.5 (7th-Tied), Spurs 110.7 (5th)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.5 (4th), Spurs 113.1 (26th)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee
Spurs: Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Jakob Poetl
Injuries: Lakers: Avery Bradley (out), Alex Caruso (questionable); Spurs: none
Lakers coming in: After beating the Grizzlies on Saturday, the Lakers have put together their 2nd 7-game winning streak of the season. This streak, which has been fueled by an uptick offensively, is different than the more defense oriented one that was ended by the Raptors a couple weeks ago.
The Lakers are shooting the ball better, are getting Anthony Davis more involved, and are just doing enough defensively to win games against some lower tiered opponents that are giving LA their best efforts each night. In some ways, this is a return to some of the glory days Lakers teams, where opponents got up to play them and the Lakers responded with mixed effort and attentiveness with just enough of a push during some key moments to give themselves a chance to win.
In the long term, this is not a sustainable strategy and will not work against the best teams. That said, winning games, especially on the road and/or on a back to back, is not an easy task in this league so the Lakers are doing well to survive and rack up some W’s. As I wrote in the aftermath of the Grizzlies game, all wins count the same and when you consider how difficult this team’s December schedule will be, stacking some victories really is imperative.
Spurs coming in: When the Lakers last played the Spurs, San Antonio came into that game 4-1 and in possession of a top 5 offense and a respectable defense. After losing to the Lakers dropped their record to 4-2, the Spurs went on to lose 9 of their next 11 games, including a stretch of 8 straight that was just snapped on Saturday night when they beat the Knicks.
The problems for the Spurs are multiple, but start with their defense. They’re now 26th in the league on that side of the ball, which is a departure from where Popovich teams typically strive. Even while still possessing a top 5 offense, San Antonio cannot get the stops they need to win games.
Part of the problem, here, is the lack of top end defensive talent. DeRozan has never been an upper tier defender and playing him at SF as often as the Spurs do only exacerbates his deficiencies. Aldridge has been a good to above average defender for longer than he’s been given credit for, but this season he’s looked to have lost a step and simply isn’t the presence in the paint or when contesting mid-range jumpers the Spurs need.
Furthering their defensive issues is Popovich’s want to not play Derrick White and Dejounte Murray together…basically, ever. White and Murray have the potential to be a top flight defensive backcourt, but never share the floor, leaving one of them to carry an outsized burden that’s nearly impossible for a single point-of-attack defender to address by himself.
There’s always a chance things improve organically; that some of the players and lineups the Spurs turn to find a higher level or that they simply experience a bit more luck with the offense missing shots that they’re currently knocking down. If that doesn’t happen, though, the Spurs are in a tough spot. Their two stars are fading from the top 15-20 levels they had at their peaks, the young players are not quite difference makers that raise this team’s ceiling, and many of their role players are simply just good NBA players that should not be leaned on to carry you — even as a collective.
I’m never one to count out the Spurs, but they have an uphill climb to get back to the playoff level team they’ve been for 2 decades.
Keys to the game: I’m going to keep this short and sweet. I see this game going one of two ways.
- The Lakers will show a re-commitment to defense, slow down a top 5 team on that end of the ball, and then, fueled by advantages provided by LeBron and AD, they will score well against a Spurs team that struggles to stop teams. If these things happen, the Lakers will win and probably do so pretty easily.
- The Lakers will not play good defense and the Spurs will score well. The Lakers, who have been improving on offense and playing a poor defensive team, will also score well. This will create a relatively close game where both teams are jockeying for control until the late stages of the game. And when that happens, the Lakers will try to call on their defense to get a few key stops. If they get them, they’ll probably win. If they don’t, they could just as easily lose.
In both those scenarios above, the Lakers could end up winning the game. Only in the 2nd scenario, though, do they lose. I do not know which way this game will go and won’t even venture to guess. What I will say, though, is that sooner or later the Lakers are going to lose a game where option #2 is the route they choose. They’ve gotten away with it vs. the Thunder twice and just beat the Grizzlies on Saturday playing this way.
If they try it tonight, though, a scoring binge by Dejounte Murray or a few mid-range baskets by DeRozan or Aldridge that go down at the wrong time could go against them and tilt the game away from them. The key is to play defense at a high enough level to not put themselves in that position. We’ll see what path they choose tonight, but it will almost certainly be one of those two I laid out above.
Where you can watch: 5:30pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet.
*All stats via stats.nba.com