Los Angeles Versus San Antonio PreviewWestern Conference Finals
#1 Los Angeles (57-25) vs. #3 San Antonio (56-26)
Season series: Tied, 2-2
San Antonio can win if…Tim Duncan is dominant enough offensively against single coverage that the Lakers are forced to double team him, opening up opportunities for perimeter shooters to make three pointers. Another key factor will be how successful Tony Parker is at breaking down the Lakers' defense with dribble penetration. If Manu Ginobili can come close to offsetting Kobe Bryant's production/impact that will be huge.
Los Angeles will win because…Kobe Bryant is the best player in the NBA and he presents an extremely difficult matchup problem, all the more so now that he has enough help around him that teams cannot just throw waves of defenders against him without worrying about being burned. As Bryant put it, he is no longer going into gun battles with butter knives--and the biggest firearm in Bryant's arsenal is midseason acquisition Pau Gasol. It is risky for opposing teams to send a big man at Bryant when he gets into the paint because now he can simply feed the ball to Gasol for an easy dunk. Gasol never shot better than .538 from the field in a season prior to joining the Lakers but he shot .589 in 27 regular season games since teaming up with Bryant and Gasol has shot .568 from the field in 10 playoff games. Meanwhile, Lamar Odom is thriving as the third option while opponents focus on dealing with Bryant and Gasol. The Lakers are a good transition team but the Spurs' defensive philosophy has always centered around getting back quickly, protecting the paint and forcing the opponent to shoot contested shots, so the Lakers will have to force turnovers in order to run; they are not likely to get many transition opportunities solely off of defensive rebounds.
Other things to consider: The Lakers went through three different seasons in 2007-08--one with Andrew Bynum at center, one with Gasol at center and a couple different stretches without either player being available. They only played the Spurs once with their current team intact, winning 106-85 at the Staples Center on April 13, a victory that ultimately decided homecourt advantage in this playoff matchup. However, Ginobili did not play in that game.
This will be an interesting test for the Lakers' much ballyhooed bench, because the Spurs' reserves include Michael Finley (or Ginobili if he is shifted back to the bench), Ime Udoka and Kurt Thomas, each of whom has been productive during the first two rounds of the playoffs. Luke Walton (8.6 ppg, .544 field goal shooting, .538 three point shooting) and Sasha Vujacic (8.7 ppg, .458 field goal shooting, .459 three point shooting) are the only Lakers reserves who have been effective in the playoffs. Ronny Turiaf has hardly played (9.0 mpg) and Jordan Farmar has been miserable defensively and offensively (.265 field goal percentage).
These franchises have faced each other in the playoffs five times since 1999 (1999, 2001-04), with the Lakers winning 14 of 25 games and three of the series. The Lakers twice beat the Spurs en route to winning a championship and the Spurs likewise twice beat the Lakers in the same season that they captured a title (in 2004 the Lakers beat the Spurs but lost in the NBA Finals). The Lakers and Spurs have combined to win seven of the last nine NBA titles (the Lakers won in 2000-02, the Spurs won in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007). That history is interesting but will not have a direct bearing on the outcome of this series because the only principals who have been involved in this rivalry since 1999 are coaches Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich plus players Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher and Tim Duncan.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:32 PM