This game is all about jockeying for playoff position. In the homestretch, the Spurs have two goals: To stay healthy and to catch Oklahoma City and gain home court advantage throughout the Western Conference post-season tournament.
The Lakers are intent on keeping the Clippers in the rear-view mirror by securing the third seed. And in doing so, the Lakers would face Dallas in the first round, a team they’ve swept in the regular season (4-0). Also, with Kobe Bryant‘s injured shin most likely to keep him on the bench, the Lakers have another chance to develop the offensive chops of his teammates — something that would undoubtedly make L.A. even tougher to beat in the playoffs.
HOW THE SPURS CAN WIN
- As he approaches his 36th birthday, Tim Duncan is not the player he used to be. These days, he rarely assumes the proper position in the low-post and instead mostly sets up a few steps above the foul line. From there he looks to drive, pass, screen, or shoot — all of which he does with his accustomed brilliance. Whoever will be assigned the task of guarding TD — mostly either Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum– will therefore be forced to play defense a long way from their common comfort zone. If Duncan can routinely knock down his mid-range shots, then the Lakers defense will be stretched to the breaking point.
- Even in his prime, Duncan was never a top-notch man-to-man defender with his defensive effectiveness depending more on the help he brought from the weak-side. That’s why, if left to his own devices, Duncan could easily be overwhelmed by Bynum. Fortunately for San Antonio, Bynum doesn’t react well to double-teams — frequently forcing shots and/or committing turnovers. Another option is for Tiago Splitter to play Bynum straight up and use all of his fouls.
- Tony Parker may have lost a half-step but is still unstoppable in a broken field, and can finish in rush-hour traffic as well as any point guard in the league. He can be expected to run rings around Ramon Sessions, but will need to bury his jumpers when defended by the long arms and quick feet of Steve Blake.
- DeJuan Blair has to overpower and outrun Gasol. When Gasol ventures into the pivot (something that Mike Brown‘s game plan seldom features), Blair must get under his center-of-gravity, push him off his favorite spots, and make Gasol shoot turnaround jumpers. When his opposite number is stationed at the high-post (having much the same responsibilities there as Duncan), Blair can play Gasol chest-to-chest. In any event, this will be a key matchup.
- Kawhi Leonard has been starting as of late, and the 6-foot-7 rookie is multi-talented, but is still mostly a stranger in paradise. He certainly has the length, the skills, and the size to at least occasionally annoy Kobe some day but not today. In any event, Leonard won’t get much daylight, yet when he is on the court he will inevitably be bullied by Metta World Peace, but certainly won’t be outhustled by Matt Barnes.
- Look for Danny Green to start at another wing position, and likewise be subject to a quick hook. Like Leonard, Green must take advantage of his limited playing time by hitting his treys, taking care of the ball and playing alert defense.
- Manu Ginobil is San Antonio’s most important bench player. Like Parker, he has lost a half-step (mostly because of injuries), yet Ginobili’s left-handed slants, full-speed-ahead hustle and long-distance drilling make him a terrific clutch player and one of the most underrated guys in the NBA. If his jumper is falling, then Ginobili can withstand the rugged defense of either Barnes or World Peace.
- Gary Neal splits his minutes at both backcourt slots. He’s a dead-eye 3-point shooter who’s still learning how to run a team when he plays the point.
- Stephen Jackson is a hot-and-cold shooter, who always looks to shoot as though his right hand is on fire. He’ll have to bring his A-game and avoid turnovers. Indeed, on his second go-round with the Spurs, SJax is averaging more turnovers than assists. Whomever he happens to be guarding, Jackson must concentrate especially hard when playing off the ball.
- Matt Bonner’s job is to rebound, set sturdy screens and, above all, bury triples. Since neither Gasol nor Bynum will extend their defense to the vicinity of the 3-point arc, Bonner should have several uncontested shots from out there.
- Putting points on the scoreboard is what the Spurs do best — their 101.8 ppg ranks third in the league. In so doing, San Antonio makes 38.7 percent of their 3-pointers, second-best in the NBA. Accordingly, their long-distance dialing must connect at their usual pace.
For sure, the team-wide fire-power is there and is enhanced by their discipline and unselfishness. But the Spurs’ middling defense could easily be trumped by the size and length of the Lakers’ bigs. That’s why they must control the defensive glass and limit the number of putbacks by Bynum, Gasol and company.
HOW THE LAKERS CAN WIN
- Even if Kobe makes a miraculous (and unanticipated) reappearance, he’s bound to be rusty and incapable of being the point-making genius we’ve all witnessed for many years. In his absence, the Lakers’ offense will be much more democratic and previously non-featured scorers like Gasol, Sessions, World Peace and even Blake must all tally double-digits.
- Even so, Bynum will be the focus of the offense and must deliver. The big guy’s footwork has improved greatly, which has made his pivot moves much more unpredictable. Still, when (not if) the double-teams come, Bynum has to make quicker decisions than is his wont and avoid forcing both his dribble and his shots through heavy congestion.
- On defense, Bynum has to properly read developing situations on a consistent basis in order to turn lane-penetrations (especially on the part of Parker) from layups into kick-out passes. Also, Bynum has to offer active help on every screen-and-roll, not merely when the spirit (or Mike Brown‘s chastisements) move him. And he must keep Duncan away from the rim by depending on his long arms to enable him to play a step soft when Duncan’s at the high post while still being able to harass any forthcoming jump shots.
- Perhaps Brown will send Gasol into the low post to operate against the undersized Blair and/or the defensively-challenged Bonner. If Brown’s game plan remains unchanged, Gasol must nail his mid-range jumpers and make appropriate passes from the high post.
- World Peace has a license to shoot with Kobe down and out, and he’s taking full advantage of every opportunity. Indeed, World Peace is playing with more force and better judgment than he has since he came to L.A. — plus, his 3-pointers are falling. If he’s lost some of his lateral defensive range, his hands and his anticipation remain superb. Don’t be surprised to see him variously defending Duncan, Ginobili, or (if he gets hot) Jackson.
- Sessions likes to zip to the rim going right and pull up for accurate floaters going left. Moreover, his 3-point shooting has undergone an astounding sea change since joining the Lakers. That said, Sessions has judiciously picked his spots to shoot, while still pushing the pace at every opportunity. His only failing is inadequately dealing with high screens on defense. This necessitates substantial help from his bigs. Sessions is also susceptible to being beaten off the dribble by fleet-footed guards — not a promising sign for controlling Parker. Again, timely interior rotations by the Lakers’ frontcourt is vital.
- Devin Ebanks usually starts (and quickly sits) in hopes of grabbing a few long-armed rebounds and bagging at least one baseline jumper.
- Barnes will play 30-plus minutes at both wing positions. He’ll run with the guards, hit a three or two, never stop busting his butt and play clawing defense. Depending on the matchups, he must partially neutralize Ginobili, lock up Jackson and stay in Neal’s face.
- With the triangle offense having discombobulated his offense, Blake is much more decisive and effective in Brown’s more traditional strategies. His long-range bombs are tickling the nets, he’s briskly moving the ball, and his defense is as spidery as ever. Ah, but can he keep up with Parker?
- The Lakers tendency to switch in defense of high screen/rolls usually creates blatant mismatches, which are then countered with quick double-teamings. Given SA’s discipline, these adjustments have to be made super-quick and must be supported by precise weak-side rotations.
- L.A.’s most significant edges are in power, size and length. Bynum has to be a dreadnaught scorer (and make his free throws), and they must collectively assault the offensive glass.
- The Spurs will definitely pack the paint on defense and force the Lakers to beat them with their somewhat iffy perimeter shooting. Accordingly, Sessions, MWP, Blake, and Barnes must hit their treys, thereby compelling SA to extend their defense and giving Bynum more time and space to do what he does in the low-post.
FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR:
- How many otherwise sure-fire layups will Splitter’s bad hands cost the Spurs?
- Since World Peace is LA’s second-best low-post scorer, how often will he be stationed on his preferred spot on the left box?
- If Parker and Duncan can successfully take their dribbles to the hoop at least a half-a-dozen times each, the Spurs will win.
- Can the Spurs limit LA’s offensive rebounding to equalize their shot total with the Lakers?
- Will Bynum run all-out in transition-defense situations?