Last April when I thought that a San Antonio Spurs vs. Los Angeles Lakers series was destined to happen, I reached out to one of the writers at the Lakers SBNation blog, Silver Screen and Roll. We had met discussing last year's Manu block of Garnett, and the idea was for Gil and I to talk about the teams, and then post a series of conversations leading up the the big event. Unfortunately, that never took place, but Gil put the first part to good use. With tonight's game looming, we decided to have another go. Take the jump to view
this clash of the Titans a couple of fans talking about basketball and stuff. (Go here to join their side of the conversation. Be sure to behave.)
Well, this season has been somewhat of a surprise up to this point, hasn't it? I expected the Lakers to be complacent and shrug off the regular season, but then I got fooled into their hot start and hot three point shooting. I dismissed those pointing to the easy schedule as HATERZ, and ignored the squeak-out wins against bad teams.
Like Lebron James, it's all gone south since then, while the Spurs look like they've turned back the clock. Some people at SS&R would shoot me funny looks when I said that Manu Ginobili had to be the "MVP up to now" award that fans so love to prematurely give out. It's still premature, but it's not looking so funny now. Best player on best team up to now? Manu fits that criteria. And Spurs fan get to think "I told you so" when looking back about how they complained about Manu not being 100% against the Lakers in the 2008 Western Conference Finals. Manu has always played winning basketball, and he's showing how much he means to the Spurs now that he's healthy. I think most of us thought we had seen his best days considering all of his injuries. It'd be like looking a Brandon Roy today and seeing him back to who he was a few years ago (I know Brandon Roy is a completely different case, but I hope you get what I mean about writing a great player off and forgetting their impact when healthy).
And so we have Tuesday's game, which in the minds of many, means a lot more to the Lakers than it does to the Spurs. This is all stemming from the fact that the Lakers are playing the "lack of focus" card that they seem to have a whole deck of, and one they played after the latest Christmas Day drubbing versus the Miami Heat. And so the media has made this the *real* game we need to watch, where the *real* Lakers will come out and show who they are against the resurgent Spurs. I remain unconvinced that the Lakers can simply turn it on and start executing, but I also hope to be pleasantly surprised. Even if the Lakers beat a well-coached, elite team like the Spurs on Tuesday, how long is this "renewed focus" going to last? More likely than not, they're revert back and realize it's easier to pile up wins against the lesser teams and stay healthy and intact for the playoffs. In other words, I'll believe it when I see it.
Lack of focus in the regular season? Say it isn't so!
via www.johnclayton.org.uk chop by Josh Guyer
Unfulfilled expectations are the worst, aren't they? If the Lakers had stumbled out of the gate and played half-heartedly as you thought they would, then you'd have no issues with how you should feel about this year's team since they'd have been right on track for the kind of season you were prepared for. But instead, they started out at 13-2, then after dropping those four in a row they've won eight of their last eleven. What do you make of a team like that? I know I'd be at my wits' end. I'm guessing you care more that they're playing .700 ball than you do that you have no idea what to expect from them on a game-by-game basis.
And when I think about my expectations for the Spurs, it's the complete opposite of your scenario. I came into this year finally ready to temper my yearly hopes for a championship, and just be happy if they made it to the Conference Finals. But with how many games they've won (I was going to say "how they've been playing" but after so many Milton Burle games, I'm not so sure) it's nearly impossible to follow them day in and day out without getting the feeling that something special is being cooked up down San Antonio way.
But it's not just what's cooking that's the surprise this year, it's the way the dishes are being prepared. Blocks and steals leading to fast breaks and transition three-pointers as a regular thing? Tony Parker averaging 25% more assists than his career number? Matt Bonner leading the league in 3PT%, and Popovich jumping up after rebounds to do his impression of a 3rd base coach waving a runner home, in order to get everybody running and pushing the pace? In the fourth quarter of a close game? Really? My head's gonna ‘splode. Forget about whether this is your daddy's Spurs, it isn't even last year's!
As far as Manu Claus and the MVP is concerned, I doubt there's a single scenario that would surprise me more than him winning it. In fact, I think I'll try to come up with one. Mr. James being traded back to the Cavs? Nope. Aliens landing at center court of the next Knick/Celtics home game? No. Shaq demanding a trade because he wants to play with Kobe again? Hardly. David Stern calling a press conference to put his arm around Mark Cuban's shoulders and stating that the Dallas franchise should be the model for the entire league? Close, but no. But just because he'll never win it, doesn't mean that I'm anything but ecstatic about his play and the buzz it's generating. I just hope that he's able to pace himself through the season and not play too many minutes before it's playoffs time. But there's no argument that he's been fun to watch these first 30 games.
And then there's Tuesday's game, which makes me think of nothing more than lying in the weeds. There's not another team in the league (with the possible exception of Dallas, whom we play on Thursday) that brings out the sly in Popovich like the Lakers. When Jackson and Pop get in the same building, the word manipulation doesn't even begin to cover the territory. We're talking mind games for your mind games. I'd like to think that the team will be ready and that everything is in place for a great matchup, but either one of these guys could pull something like playing a zone for the entire game, just so that the other team wouldn't be able to have matchup experience against the real thing before the postseason. But that's one of the things that makes the game so compelling.
I am hardly at my wits' end, but I can only speak for myself. I'm the fan who will stick with "we're still the defending champs!" after every regular season loss, no matter how horrible. At this point, I just hope the Lakers can win a playoff series on the road, because it looks like it's going to take a least one of those to win it all. Speaking of .700 ball, I'm going to again ignore the strength of schedule at my own peril and say "What' the big deal? Last seasons' championship team finished at .695!" I believe that somehow the Lakers will win and lose enough games regardless of the competition to get them right at that 53 to 57 win range.
But you are absolutely right about not knowing what to expect. They could win by 20, they could lose by 20, who knows? I've always had a very even keel about regular season games, and with my team of choice having won the last two championships, it's hard to complain. I don't understand the fans who want perfection. Isn't it enough to be the best in the end? Well, unless you paid for a ticket to the Heat game, then you should be livid.
Let's bring this back to the Spurs, who are 26-4, putting them on pace for 71 wins. Why don't we start talking about them breaking the Chicago Bulls' record? I would like to take this time to put all the pressure and focus on the Spurs. How is it that this team can still fly under the radar (the way they like it, might I add)? How is it that nobody ever slips and says something dumb in the media, like "We expect to win it all?" Shouldn't the story be "Spurs Should Demolish Lakers", and if they don't it's a travesty? When it's the Spurs who are in front, it seems that reasonability wins out, but if the tables were turned, the "Worldwide Leader" would be having columns like "Are the Lakers the Greatest Team Ever?". I say throw out the double standards and give the Spurs the major market treatment for once!
If I didn't know better, I'd think that some media-bitter PtR member found out about our email exchange and paid you to rant about the lack of press the Spurs have received so far. A fan of the Lakers calling for the Spurs to get major market treatment? This season really is upside-down. But no matter how strange things get, it's not like the Whirlwhy Leeder is suddenly going to change the way it does business. How does it do business, you wonder? I'm glad you asked.
The national media conglomerates in general, and ESPN specifically, are in the eyeball delivery business. They have to collect as large an audience for whatever event/sport/contest they own the rights to, and then sell their advertising for as much as possible while minimizing expenses. (I realize this isn't exactly an exposé, but it's foundational to answering your question about the L.A./S.A. double standard.) So, if you are tasked with covering the entire NBA with a finite number of writers, then you're going to have to decide where to focus. And when your boss is a big anthropomorphic mouse, your pitch is gonna have to be pretty easy to fit in a nutshell. "Let's feature this fascinating story about the small-market team that's defying expectations" might get the green light as a novelty once every couple weeks, but the rest of the time you're going to have to bring those retinas to your product. And there are simply more optic nerves attached to the brains of fans in L.A., New York, Miami and Dallas, than there are connected to those residing in the cute little one-professional-team town that forms a triangle with the big cities in Texas.
Wow, maybe that degree in journalism my parents paid for finally paid off.
"Let's bring this back to the Spurs" again, I guess. Okay, I'll play along. First, about that 26-4: it's nice and all, but I'm not quite sure that there's any such thing as pace. Not to keep coming back to LA's record, but you tell me where the pace is in 13-2, 0-4, and 8-3. Plot each of those runs out and you'll get 71 wins, 0 wins, and 60 wins. Use the them together and you get 57 wins. Divide them by π and ... well, you get the picture. I don't really play the "What could the record be" game and so I hadn't seen an actual projection. 71 wins, huh? That really would be pretty impressive. Or it would be if I actually believed in pace. Up to the Orlando game, the Spurs had lost only one game per month, so it was fun to joke that the record would end up at 75-7, but that's actually pretty close to 71-11. Scary. Stats are fun to play with, so if they can't keep the losses out of double digits then it would be cool if they could reach the seventies. But last I checked, there's no trophy handed out to the team with the most regular season wins. Suffice to say that I won't be surprised if the current winning percentage is this season's high point. Like you said, the Lakers won it all last year after winning 69.5%. If I had to guess, I'd say something around 75% feels right for this team - I guess that's 62-20. Not exactly pressuring Chicago's record is it?
And as for your question about why no one on the Spurs ever "slips and says something dumb in the media, like ‘We expect to win it all?'" That's an easy one. When they sign their contract, they agree to have a chip inserted in the base of their brains that automatically takes over their speech functions as soon as any recording device is powered on in their presence. The most obvious piece of evidence for this theory: Richard Jefferson. His game underwent a transformation from last season to this, after a summer's worth of work directly under Popovich, but it wasn't until he signed his new Spurs contract in the off-season that the chip was installed. Listen to yesterday's interview he gave before the Spurs practice. Start it at the one minute mark, and tell me that doesn't sound like something right out of the Spurs Handbook for Answering Good Questions from the Media. I'd have said that Pop himself was in direct control of RJ at that point, but you can see GOML walking behind him at the 2:09 mark. So, it's gotta be the chip.