Manu the Magnificent: Ginobili Stars as Spurs Roll in Game ThreeThe high energy version of Manu Ginobili finally showed up in the Western Conference Finals--and not a moment too soon for the San Antonio Spurs, who are still very much alive after his 30 points in 31 minutes propelled them to a 103-84 victory over the L.A. Lakers, L.A.'s worst loss of the 2008 playoffs. Ginobili's injuries have been the subject of much discussion--though to his credit he has consistently refused to make any excuses. In any case, Ginobili certainly did not look like someone who is nursing a variety of ailments; the difference between this game and the previous two had nothing to do with Ginobili's physical condition and everything to do with his mental state and the mental state of the players who guarded him. Ginobili had a determined, aggressive attitude right from the start. Tony Parker also had a strong game (20 points, five assists); he and Ginobili each shot 9-15 from the field. Of course, it is always easier for the little brothers to slash to the hoop and make open jumpers when big brother provides a physical presence in the paint: Tim Duncan had 22 points, a game-high 21 rebounds and five assists.
Kobe Bryant led the Lakers with 30 points on 13-23 field goal shooting but it was all "butter knives" and no guns for Bryant in this game: the other Lakers shot 22-59 (.373) from the field, including 14-41 (.341) by starters Pau Gasol (7-18), Lamar Odom (2-11), Derek Fisher (1-4) and Vladimir Radmanovic (4-8). Gasol is marvelously skilled but he is a finesse player who sometimes bails the defense out with soft moves when he is in traffic--or, as Lakers Coach Phil Jackson described them to TNT's Doug Collins prior to game three, "weenie shots." Bryant probably set Gasol up for half a dozen easy shots that Gasol botched. Odom also sometimes has a problem finishing point blank shots in the paint, something that we have seen throughout the first three games--and the few times that he made strong moves and drew fouls in game three he missed the free throws (3-8). Although Odom had team-highs in rebounds (11) and assists (six), his missed shots and turnovers (a game-high five) really hurt the Lakers. Opposing defenses will always focus on Bryant and they have to be mindful of Gasol as well, so it is vital that Odom take advantage of being the third option. To his credit, Odom was brutally honest about his role in this debacle: "I put this one on myself. I take the blame, totally, for this game."
In game one, Bryant got his teammates involved in the early going before erupting for 25 second half points. Perhaps sensing that his teammates were not quite ready for the challenge of playing the defending champions in their home arena, Bryant did not wait to look for his shot in game three; he scored eight points on 4-7 field goal shooting in the first 7:03 as the Lakers took a 15-8 lead. Then Ginobili answered with back to back three pointers and by the end of the quarter the Lakers were clinging to a 24-21 advantage.
Bryant got his customary rest at the start of the second quarter and by the time he returned to action the Spurs were up 27-26. He immediately made a strong move to the hoop to put the Lakers ahead 28-27 but that turned out to be their last lead of the game. Ginobili scored nine points in a 1:04 stretch to put the Spurs on top for good. By halftime Ginobili already had 22 points and San Antonio was up 49-39.
Duncan opened the second half with a strong move against Gasol in the low post but Gasol answered by scoring six straight points, helping the Lakers cut the margin to 56-47 but that is as close as the Lakers would get in a low scoring third quarter. The Spurs led 69-57 heading into the final 12 minutes.
Before the fourth quarter, Collins wondered whether Jackson would give Bryant his normal rest or if he would try to ride Bryant to the finish line as he did in game one. Collins has mentioned several times during this series how important it is for the Spurs to take advantage of whenever Bryant is not in the game. Jackson elected to rest Bryant this time and when Bryant first stepped on the court in the fourth quarter the Lakers trailed 77-60. On Bryant's first offensive possession, Odom drove to the hoop and committed a charging foul. On the next two possessions, Odom missed a jumper and split a pair of free throws and the Spurs pushed their lead to 81-61. Bryant then missed a jumper but Odom converted a nice putback; Odom is much better coming in for weakside scores then he is when he initiates the attack. I never understood why people ever compared Odom to Scottie Pippen; the Jordan-era Bull who Odom's game most resembles is Horace Grant, a good defender and rebounder who was not a primary offensive option. Odom has a better--or at least more flashy--handle while Grant had a more reliable 15 foot jump shot.
After a Parker shot again put the Spurs up 20, Bryant apparently decided that he had seen enough of the Gasol and Odom brickathon and he drilled three three pointers in a 1:12 stretch to put the Lakers in striking distance. He even had a four point play opportunity after Bowen fouled him but Bryant missed the free throw--his only free throw attempt of the game; the Spurs' mantra is to defend without fouling, which is a lot different from the hands-on approach taken by the Jazz in the previous round--or the fouling without defending approach that the Wizards tried against LeBron James in the first round. Bryant added one more trey to make the score 88-76 with 5:00 left but Duncan answered with five points in a :55 stretch to end the Lakers' comeback hopes and Jackson pulled the plug at that point, sitting down Bryant and Gasol
Although the Lakers' offensive problems in game three were obvious, there were some important defensive lapses as well. The Spurs shot 38-74 (.514) from the field, including 10-18 (.556) from three point range. The Lakers had their best offensive quarter of the game in the final stanza (27 points) but could not gain any ground because they gave up 34 fourth quarter points.
It really is remarkable how much homecourt advantage means even to an experienced championship team like the Spurs. I said after the Lakers' big game two win that the Lakers "will have to perform at a very high level" to win in San Antonio; obviously, the Lakers did not even come close to bringing the energy and efficiency that it takes to win on the road in the playoffs, let alone to beat the Spurs. The tendency after each game in a playoff series is to overreact to what we have just seen, a fallacy that I studiously try to avoid; the Lakers' 2-0 start did not make me believe that they would sweep the Spurs and this loss does not make me think that the Lakers are in trouble. Obviously, the Lakers squandered an opportunity to put a stranglehold on the Spurs but I expect that Gasol will play much better in game four and that it will be a closer contest down the stretch. If Odom can cut down on his miscues the Lakers will have an excellent chance to take a 3-1 lead heading home.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:44 AM