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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Los Angeles Versus San Antonio Preview

Western 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:32 PM

8 comments

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8 Comments:

At Wednesday, May 21, 2008 12:03:00 AM, Anonymous S.Tiku said...

Hi David,

Great post as usual. Just wanted to comment on some of the main points you have mentioned. Firstly, I do agree with you that Kobe Bryant is the best player in the NBA, and would further make the statement that he is playing as well as Michael Jordan did in his prime. Having said that, I still do think that Bruce Bowen from the Spurs would be able to do a better job on him than any of the defenders Bryant has faced so far in the playoffs. In addition to this, I also think that the Spurs are by far a more potent defensive team as a whole compared to the Utah Jazz, and ofcourse, the Denver Nuggets. The threat of Bruce Bowen as a premier perimeter defender, and Tim Duncan patrolling the paint, should be able to limit the number of basketball plays that Kobe Bryant can make. Even if Bryant would require to be double teamed, the fact that everyone on the Spurs team understands the defensive schemes and communicates very well, players on the lakers squad who usually would be left wide open against most opponents, will have to think more quickly in making the right play because Spurs' rotation has been solid throughout most of the playoffs. This leads to the next point I want to make, which is the X-factor. I personally think that there are two X-factors in this series, Derek Fisher and the Lakers' bench. If you look at the Lakers' squad, there are only two players who have extensive playoff experience, kobe and fisher. Assuming that kobe performs to his usual level, fisher is the only teammate who can make smart and quick basketball plays, under this pressure, and against a high quality opponent. On the defensive end, part of the outcome of the series will depend on how fisher can defend tony parker's penetration. Although Derek Fisher did an exceptional job defending Deron Williams, Tony parker has a completely different skill set, he is much quicker and explosive on the transition. Whilst, derek fisher's intelligence in positioning himself and his upper body strength was useful against williams, those strengths won't be as helpful when defending parker. Just like how you mentioned in your previous posts about how Chris Paul is one of the premier defensive point guards in the NBA (7th on the NBA Ballot for Defensive player of the year) he still conceided 20 ppg from Parker. And even though Fisher is a great defender for a PG, he is not nearly as good as Chris Paul, and on top of that, it is important to look at how the Point Guards match each other, in specific, looking at how someone's strenghts might play onto someone's weaknesses, and in this case, how Parkers' explosiveness plays onto Derek Fisher's lack of lateral quickness. Moving on, I also think that the Lakers' bench has not been as productive as it was in the regular season. In one of your earlier posts, you had alluded to this specifically, and I also agree that they have not been tested, and when they did produce, it was normally in garbage time when the game had already been decided. The lakers have only had one reliable performers off the bench, being walton, and vujacic has shot well at times (akin to wally sczerbiak for the cavs). On the other hand, the spurs bench have high IQ baskebtall players who make the right basketball plays. Finley, Horry, Udoka and Thomas have all made timely contributions this past series agains the Hornets, and I think will out perform the Lakers' bench. However, if Derek Fisher can stay infront of parker and the lakers bench fires, then I think the lakers will win, but those are big "ifs", and I from a historic point of view, whenever the Spurs make it this far to the conference finals, they always win it.

About 99% of the time, I agree with your posts, but because of the reasons above, I feel that the Spurs will win this series.

I would appreciate if you let me know what you think

Thanks

 
At Wednesday, May 21, 2008 7:28:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

S. Tiku:

The Spurs are the defending champions and they had just one fewer win than the Lakers so they obviously have a shot to win the series. That said, I expect the Lakers to prevail for the reasons that I listed in the post. Regarding the specific points that you made, Bowen is a better defender than the defenders Kobe faced in previous rounds but no one can really shut Kobe down; all Bowen can do is make him work hard to get open and contest his shots. I do expect the Spurs to play better defense than the Jazz or Nuggets did but that does not change the reality that if Kobe is not double teamed he is going to score a lot of points and when he is double teamed he is going to pass to the open man. Gasol is a good finisher and a good passer, so if the defense recovers to him then he will make the logical pass. As Hubie Brown always says, you have to make the second pass out of the trap to beat a good defensive team. Eventually, this comes down to making or missing shots. Kobe has to get his points in an efficient manner when he is open and his teammates have to knock down the open shots that his presence creates. Kobe is a tougher cover for a defense than Chris Paul or David West and that means that the Lakers will be tougher for the Spurs to cover than the Hornets were--and the young Hornets just pushed the Spurs to seven games.

I agree that Fisher may have some problems keeping Parker in front of him and I listed that as one of the keys for a San Antonio victory. However, I don't think that Parker will have nearly as much success against L.A. as he did against Phoenix and that the damage he does will be manageable on most nights.

I also agree that the Lakers' bench could be a problem; they are not as good as a lot of people seem to think.

My main thesis regarding this Lakers team is that Kobe needs less help to win even than other superstars because he is so dynamic both offensively and defensively. Kobe carried a team to the playoffs with Kwame Brown and Smush Parker as starters. I know that I mention that often but this is truly remarkable if you really think about it. Now Kobe has a very good center and a legit point guard who has championship experience. Plus, the young role players have improved and Odom has been placed in his proper role as the third option.

Denver has more talent than L.A. top to bottom--two All-Stars, a former Defensive Player of the Year, a Sixth Man Award candidate--but the Nuggets had no answer for Kobe and that opened up everything for Kobe's teammates as well. Utah has three current or former All-Stars (Boozer, Okur, Kirilenko) and an All-NBA Second Team point guard, so the Jazz are a more talented team top to bottom than the Lakers--but the Jazz had no answer for Kobe and that opened everything for Kobe's teammates as well. Do you sense a theme here? The Lakers have a great coach, a one-time All-Star in Gasol, a good third option player in Odom and some role players who have high basketball IQs but if you take Kobe out of the mix, the Spurs would sweep what is left of the team--but I believe that Kobe's impact is such that the Lakers will beat the Spurs; if he continues to put up 33-6-6 with a good shooting percentage while creating open shots so that Gasol can shoot better than .560 from the field then the Fisher-Parker matchup and the production of the Lakers' bench are not going to pose insurmountable problems for L.A.

 
At Wednesday, May 21, 2008 9:33:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

s.tiku.....
as good as bryant is no one played as good as michael jordan did in his prime. no one. calm down. bryant is not even playing better than bird and magic in their primes. i know these jordan comparisons will never stop but they get very annoying. just enjoy bryant.

 
At Wednesday, May 21, 2008 8:54:00 PM, Anonymous S.Tiku said...

David,

I agree that Kobe Bryant is the only player who could have taken Kwame Brown and Smush Parker to the playoffs as their teammates, and I agree that at the end of the day it is all about making shots.

But I just wanted to add something, if the Spurs were able to defeat the Lakers' team when they had Kobe as their primary playmaker and Shaq as the Center (who at the time, was the most dominant player in the game), then shouldn't the Spurs be able to defeat Kobe and Gasol. Both the lakers team have the same point guard in derek fisher, and one could argue that the role players in the old lakers team were much more competent in hitting the big shots than the current role players. Whilst the lakers team has had an almost complete overhaul, the core unit for the spurs still remains the same, they have duncan, parker, ginobili, bowen. So my question is if this unit of 4 could defeat a much more dominant team in kobe and shaq, then why won't they be able to prevail over kobe and gasol?

 
At Thursday, May 22, 2008 12:04:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

stiku did you ever see micheal jordan play basketball before kobe is as good as jordan was in 98 right now no where close to as good as jordan was in 87-93 or 96 or 97 kobe is the man and maybe as good as the last 3 jordan rings but i would give edge to jordan he is no jordan no is or ever will be family. kobe is the best in the game now with lebron out or up there with lebron probably slightly better, as madnice said he is no bird or magic right now either.

 
At Thursday, May 22, 2008 8:41:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

S. Tiku:

I guess I could answer you simply by saying, "Look what happened in game one" but I will elaborate beyond the video evidence from that contest:

When the Spurs beat the Lakers in 1999, Jackson was not the coach and Kobe was not the player that he is today.

When the Spurs beat the Lakers in 2003, the Spurs had home court advantage because Shaq decided earlier in the season to take care of his injured toe "on company time." That Lakers team lost the first two on the road, won the next two at home, lost a close game five on the road and then got blown out in game six. That is the season in which Shaq complained about not getting the ball enough, to which Kobe retorted that if Shaq were in good enough shape to run the floor then he would pass him the ball. Shaq replied that if the big dog is not fed (the ball) then he won't guard the house (play defense). Kobe averaged 30.0 ppg that year, finished third in the MVP race and saved the Lakers' season by averaging 40 ppg for a month while Shaq slowly worked his way back into shape but Shaq had not yet come to the realization that he could win titles as the second option to a great wing player. He figured it out by the time he got to Miami but he could have won several more titles with Kobe if he had understood this earlier in his career.

The current Lakers team is a tight knit group that has no such chemistry problems. The Spurs have no answer for the Bryant/Gasol screen/roll play: if they continue to trap Bryant then Gasol will have a field day; if they play Bryant soft then he will kill them with jumpers. They cannot even dream of doubling Gasol and leaving Kobe free. I suppose at some point they may decide to try their luck with letting Kobe shoot jumpers but he is going to make those at a very high rate. This is a series in which Duncan may put up big numbers against single coverage but as long as the Lakers contain the other players the Spurs will not be able to score enough points to win four games.

 
At Thursday, May 22, 2008 8:50:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

As I have made clear several times, I don't think that Kobe is better than MJ. However, what S. Tiku said is that Kobe "is playing as well as Michael Jordan did in his prime." If S. Tiku is talking strictly about these first 11 playoff games then he has a legit case: Kobe is averaging 32.7 ppg, 7.0 apg and 6.2 rpg while shooting .498 from the field. The assists and field goal percentage are playoff career-highs for Kobe, the scoring average is .1 ppg below his career-high and the rebounding average is his fourth best. MJ's playoff career averages are 33.4 ppg (best ever), 6.4 rpg, 5.7 apg and .487 field goal percentage. Keep in mind that he did not make the playoffs as a Wizard, so his playoff numbers are not diluted by his final comeback.

Kobe's numbers in this year's playoffs are Jordanesque but the comparison only becomes valid on a career basis if Kobe continues to play at this level while winning some more championships.

 
At Thursday, May 22, 2008 9:27:00 AM, Anonymous S.Tiku said...

Reggie,

I should have been more specific. I was born in 1985, so i was unable to watch jordan on a regular basis from 87-93. Although I did see videos of him, but watching one or two games of a player is not a solid basis to evaluate a player's strenghts and weaknesses. So when I said that "Kobe bryant is playing as well as Michael Jordan did in his prime", I am alluding to the championship seasons which include 1995-96, 1996-97 and 1997-98. Like David said in his post, his numbers in these playoffs are Jordanesque, but it is not just that. I have watched numerous games of Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, and I have failed to spot a weakness in his game. I know Jordan is considered to be the best player to have played this game, and some dare not to compare any player to Jordan, but you have to be detached from these statements and the media when you are comparing players, otherwise you include bias. Kobe Bryant has everything in his game, he can contribute to the game in so many ways, and impact the outcome of the game on both ends of the floor just like Jordan. Before, I would have made the claim that offensively, Kobe Bryant is as talented as Jordan (mind you, just talented), but that doesn't mean he was playing as well, because his understanding of the game was still limited, and some might say that he didn't have the right players around him, but in my opinion, he still didn't make the best basketball plays. However, for the last two seasons, every time I have watched Kobe Bryant play, he very rarely has made a poor decision, and every basketball play he makes seems like the optimum play. I know Jordan fans might take offense to this, and it is not that I am not a Jordan fan, I own many Jordan dvd's. I just think that every basketball fan should appreciate great players, and that is what I'm doing here.

 

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