Bryant Leads the Way as Lakers Pummel SpursI have been diligently working on an article about how underrated the San Antonio Spurs are and how history shows that most teams that win at their current rate at least advance to the NBA Finals but now does not seem like the ideal moment to publish that piece of analysis; I have followed the NBA for far too long to believe that one regular season game outweighs a body of work consisting of dozens of games played over several months but when the two-time defending NBA champion L.A. Lakers roar into San Antonio and pillage the Spurs 99-83 it only seems fair to analyze that carnage before praising the Spurs.
"What is wrong with the Lakers?" has been a very popular question this season and I have even gotten in on the act a couple times (most recently about a month ago), if for no other reason than to refute some of the nonsense that other people have written about this subject. The Lakers won their first six games after Kobe Bryant's scintillating All-Star MVP performance but those victories were just warmup acts for Sunday's showdown in San Antonio; the Spurs have all but clinched the top seed in the West, meaning that the Lakers will likely have to win at least one playoff game in San Antonio in order to advance to the NBA Finals for the fourth straight year. The Spurs defeated the Lakers in both prior meetings this season but yesterday, to borrow Mark Jackson's witty line, it looked like the Miami Heat's big brother showed up to avenge the way that the Spurs pounded the Heat on Friday: the Lakers raced to a 34-13 lead by the end of the first quarter and were never seriously threatened the rest of the way.
Kobe Bryant missed his first three shots but still paced the Lakers with eight points and three assists in the opening stanza. Bryant led the Lakers with a game-high 27 points but he also ranked second on the Lakers with seven rebounds, a performance reminiscent of his 39 point outburst versus the Spurs in the Lakers' series clinching game five victory in the 2008 Western Conference Finals. Bryant has tormented the Spurs for years and, after two subpar games versus them this season, he undoubtedly wanted to reassert his dominance before the 2011 playoffs begin.
The Spurs' three All-Star caliber players did not distinguish themselves: Tony Parker had a solid though slightly subpar outing (14 points, six assists) but Tim Duncan finished with two points and seven rebounds and Manu Ginobili posted a nearly invisible six points and three assists. Backup point guard Gary Neal led the Spurs in scoring with 15 points.
The Spurs look awfully small next to the Lakers--not just on the scoreboard during this one particular game, but physically: it is not just that the Lakers' bigs are, well, bigger than the Spurs' bigs but the Lakers' key wing players--most notably Bryant and Ron Artest--are bigger than their San Antonio counterparts. If the Lakers did not have Bryant then the Spurs could try to counteract the Lakers' size upfront with speed and trapping but leaving Bryant single covered is simply not a viable option.
Although the Lakers used their size advantage upfront to good effect--most notably via Pau Gasol's scoring (21 points) and Andrew Bynum's rebounding (a game-high 17)--it is still puzzling to hear people like ESPN's Chris Mullin talk about how the Lakers can overwhelm teams by putting Gasol, Bynum and Lamar Odom (who was solid with 15 points, six assists and four rebounds) on the court at the same time; the reality is quite different, as I correctly predicted back in 2008:
"Odom is not an ideal small forward, so a frontline of Bynum-Gasol-Odom is not feasible, despite what some people may try to convince you; the only way that those three players can effectively coexist is if one of them comes off of the bench. Gasol is the second best player on the team, so he is not going to be a reserve. Bynum is the best postup player, so it does not make sense to sit him either."
Not only did many "experts" incorrectly predict that Coach Phil Jackson would play Bynum, Gasol and Odom together as starters but many "experts" still act like that is a lineup that Jackson often uses when the truth is that those three players have only been on the court at the same time for very brief stretches (and not just because of Bynum's injuries, but because that lineup is not feasible for the very reasons that I described three years ago).
Coach Jackson wisely uses Gasol, Bynum and Odom in a three man rotation, with Bynum or Gasol playing center and Gasol or Odom playing power forward. A major reason that the Lakers' bigs are so effective is that opposing teams must focus on containing Bryant; the Lakers do not seem nearly as big or imposing when he is not on the court and that became evident in the fourth quarter when the Spurs cut into the Lakers' lead. Coach Jackson inserted Bryant back into the game, a decision that Coach Jackson surely did not make lightly considering the limitations he has placed on Bryant's minutes to preserve Bryant's balky right knee. After the game, Coach Jackson curtly explained, "I didn't like the way the bench was playing. They were settling for outside shots." The reality is that Bryant had helped the Lakers to build such a big lead that strictly speaking they probably did not need for him to return in the final quarter just to preserve the win but it was quite evident that Coach Jackson did not want to let a blowout be reduced to a single digit final margin. Players and coaches will generally not publicly admit to "sending messages" but this game had "Western Union" written all over it; the point was not just to win but to win convincingly and to provide nothing positive for the Spurs to look at on film.
The Spurs are a very good team and they are having a tremendous season that I will analyze at length in an upcoming article. Even though this game indicated that the Spurs have some matchup problems versus a fully healthy, fully engaged Lakers team I still expect that these two squads will engage in a competitive and entertaining Western Conference Finals showdown this season.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:40 AM