The much ballyhooed match up between winners of eight of the last eleven NBA championships turned out to be more of a sample size of how the two teams have been faring more than a quarter of a season already past. The San Antonio Spurs kept going to its newfound fast breaking attack, while still being able to resurrect its trademark team defense to stymie the two-time defending champions Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers, now losers of three straight by double-digit margins, continued to grope for recognizable form, whether it be in its vaunted triangle offense or its rangy defense, but found no help in either end as shown by Kobe Bryant's 8-for-27 shooting night and having afforded only 82 points total.
After the click, how about I stop writing about A game and start talking about THE game? Sounds good? Let's do this.
I've rendered myself pretty much useless during the holidays. I have the rest of the days off from Christmas until the New Year, and all I've done was eat, sleep, play those gawdawfully addicting Humble Bundle games, watch a few movies to catch up on what I've missed (Shaun of the Dead, In Bruges, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Up, etc.), and practically breeze through the first season of Modern Family, which I've been dying to finally start watching. I've also been horribly anti-social, shunning invites by friends to go out and have a good time, and just prefer to twiddle my fingers surfing the Internet, waiting for this Spurs-Lakers game. In December. Which really doesn't mean anything.
Or does it?
I'm not sure, as there are always two sides to every argument, just like there's always a silver and black to every Spurs uniform. Huh, that didn't make any sense, did it?
These two teams respect each other's body of work for the past decade and what each is capable of doing, much to PJ's unabashed dislike for the Spurs, and it started by them marking this date on the calendar as a "measuring stick" game. As with any team who seriously wants to win, you treat these types of games with a little more importance than the rest, because more often than not, when the smoke clears, it's the Lakers - and hopefully, the Spurs -- who will be there standing when we get to the better part of the playoffs.
Simply put, the game showcased the vastly different style of play the Spurs have been effectively doing (with the occasional D thrown in), and how the Lakers still look like they have a major hangover after back-to-back titles.
"Forget about whether this is your daddy's Spurs, it isn't even last year's!" -- jrw
The first few minutes of the game started with Kobe scaring us all by hitting four of his first five shots to help the Lakeshow to an early lead, until an old Laker tormentor showed up -- Tony Parker. Le Baguette, flashing his best form, ran circles around LA's guards and big men for layups and threw in a couple of jumpers for good measure. I was expecting him to use the teardrop early and often against the tall Los Angeles frontline but I don't think I saw any of it, which is a testament to how Tony was just in attack mode all game -- no weaksauce in there, just drive it in and shove it in their throats. Also, see, only 3 assists! The Spurs ended the quarter with a flurry as Neal swished home a three ball and another Matt Bonner Bomb from beyond the arc to hike the lead to 9, 27-18.
Finally realizing that the unathletic Bonner, the rookie Tiago Splitter and the crazily undersized Blair are playing, Phil Jackson decides to give the Spurs hell by unleashing the twin towers combination of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, and boy, did it mess up the Silver and Black some. Gasol, the unfairly skilled big man that he is, pours in seven points during a brief run to give the Lakers back the lead entering halftime. The seven footers also clogged the paint to take away drives, while the Laker guards chased the shooters out of the three point line -- although you can also say that the Spurs hesitated on some of them and also missed open ones. Overall, it was a cold shooting quarter where the Spurs made only 7 out of 20 shots, missing all 5 attempts from beyond the arc. Also, with Duncan resting, the big men seemed rattled on how to deal with Pau and Drew's size and length. You gotta admit though, those two are really a handful for anyone.
"He's our best defender." -- Ginobili on Hill
Still, the highlight of the second quarter was George Hill standing up to Kobe Bean -- words were exchanged, technicals handed out, invisible sandwiches thrown by Bonner from the bench at the Mamba, and at this point, if you've watched too many games of Michael Jordan going commando on those who try to undermine his rule, you would've thought, "Uh-oh... Kobe's about to go bananas now and take over." Well... Didn't. Happen. What happened the following quarter was pretty shocking though.
Whatever adjustments Pop and his staff made at halftime sure worked like magic. Maybe Pop was thinking, "Eh, you dare give me the twin towers treatment? Here, have a DeJuan Blair for your hassles." Blair just balled in the third, creating havoc on pick-and-roll situations with his length (getting 2 steals in the boxscore for his troubles), and for the game, equaling the six offensive rebounds of Laker big men trio Pau-Bynum-Odom combined. Now that's amazine. It also helped that DeBeast got his own offense going, hitting 4 of 6 shots in the quarter.
As for Bryant who was supposed to go off and show to the young George Hill not to mess with a five-time champ, he practically shot himself and his team out of the game, missing the final four of his THIRTEEN straight missed shots (after starting 4-of-5) before finally making a three-pointer at the 4:43 mark to end the drought. At that point in Kobe's slump, Phil would've said ""If I was playing, I probably wouldn’t pass him the ball the next time." Oh wait. He DID say it. Should've said it to his teammates earlier, Phil. Spurs go up 71-62 after a 29-18 quarter.
Heading into the fourth, the Lakers were determined to make a bit of a run and turn this into a nailbiter. Hill and old-ish rookie Gary Neal, however, were having none of it as Albatross scored on two freebies while Neal made up for a three that didn't make the 3rd quarter buzzer in time by splashing home a three ball in the face of Chris Anderson Jr. a.k.a. Matt Barnes. The rout was on. Or maybe not?
A shooter will just keep on shooting, 13 straight misses be damned, as the Black Mamba finally finds some fire in his hands by canning two straight triples to bring the Spurs lead down to 9. George Hill, though, was determined to not let the trash-talking and finger-wagging go to waste, as he went to work by scoring 4 of his 10 points and continued to hound Bryant to prevent him from getting in a groove. Most righteous, Mr. Hill. And here is the game ball for your efforts. Spurs win! Spurs win! Spurs win!
Some post-game musings (this is where I try to write about THE game, star or no star in blog reviews or whatever):
A) Bizarro Spurs this season is turning more and more like the Spurs for the rest of it, and nope, it's not that defensive, lockdown Spurs of championships past. Players running off to the races with either miss or make is now happily ingrained in my brain, and I have to say... so this is what Suns fans feel like when Nash and A'mare were ballin' back in the valley, or when Run TMC were making the hearts of Bay Area fans pump blood faster than Don Nelson's D-less offense.
I have three things I love about this newfangled game, or whatever the cool kids call it these days.
The Outlet. I have never seen the Great Bill's play -- Bill Russell and Bill Walton -- and have only read about them in books, but they might have looked like Tim Duncan circa-2010-2011 somewhat, especially in the outlet passing department. I've been appreciating it more and more the last few games when Timmy grabs a rebound, turns around and surveys the 'scape like a good ol' seafarer looking out for dry land, and then rifles the ball with an overhead pass to the farthest open guy to jumpstart -- not just initiate, mind you, but get it off to a really rolling start -- the fast break machine. It's not been praised much this season, but Duncan's height, his ability to see the floor well, and skill to make the long bullet pass to a streaking teammate has been integral to making all of this run-and-gun thingy work. Even Blair's getting into the act, too. Just watch them. It's loads of fun.
Defense. While it hasn't exactly been vintage, it's what you need to be able to successfully run. The defense these days is not lock you down-choke you-stomp on your throat variety, but the number of steals and deflections our guards and bigs (particularly DeJuan) make create opportunities for easy baskets. Also, defensive rebounds are a factor to initiate fastbreaks, and the Spurs are currently middle of the pack (15th) in defensive rebound rate, which is fairly decent given Duncan's limutes and Blair's undersized-ness.
Tony Parker. I mean, who the hell still wants to trade this guy? As he showed in this game, he is our one clear advantage over the Lakers. I know Manu was feeling under the weather and shot awfully, but he can't come close to approximating how TP just messes up the entire Laker defense. The big men can't block Tony's shots if they can't see where he is, and the penetration drawing defenders into the paint almost always makes sure that our shooters get decent looks at the basket. And now that the offense has switched to full blast, Parker's ability to push the ball even on made field goals becomes more integral. No one on that Lakers roster, and not many in this league, can keep up with Tony in a foot race.
B) Sean Elliott also talked about Parker wanting to get "quicker" in the offseason and how it shows now. While some observed early in the season how Tony seems to be slower and may not be able to regain that speed because of previous injuries, I'm not that worried because being "fast" is different from being "quick." Steve Nash, old as the Bible poing guard that he is, recognizes the value of quickness in his game -- being able to stop and start on a dime, having that explosion on your first and second steps, being able to turn 'round corners with ease, etc. Basically just having improved reaction times at what you do, and Tony has been able to do that this year not just with the usual pretty spin moves but with his decision making as well.
C) Seeing Tim and Manu struggle wasn't pretty, but with the Spurs winning despite that? It warms the heart.
D) The Lakers went away with pounding the ball inside not just because the Laker guards tried in vain to create for themselves, but also because of the great "digging" defense that the Spurs guards played to support the bigs. Every time Pau or Bynum got the ball on the low block, someone was doing a "soft" help -- just trying to reach out and poke the ball to discourage the big man from putting it on the floor, while maintaining ample space to help out on shooters if ever the opposing big man kicked it out. It made for effective soft double-teaming, but I figure the Lakers will have something to counter it the next time, or until their shooters start making shots to open up the interior.
E) Even CIA Pop acknowledges that the team will need Tiago if it wants to make a serious run at the title, as shown by playing Splitter early. Despite being saddled with foul trouble and not returning to the game until garbage time, Tiago finally got a taste of what it feels like to play with real talented big men the last few games, going up with the Lakers front line and of course, getting to do battle with Dwight Howard a couple of games ago. While he wasn't stellar, he did have that big block against Pau. Let's see how he'll fare against the likes of Amare, Garnett and Shaq.
F) The Spurs literally ran the Lakers out of the building with a 17-4 edge in fastbreak points. Who wants to grind out games and knees anyway? Surely, not this year's Spurs.
G) I also liked the fact that our shooters weren't discouraged at all after misses. RJ missed three wide open ones in a row and ended up 2-8 on three pointers, Manu was 2-7, and Neal, 3-9. Live and die by the three maybe? Although we've had some wins that have shown we can be miserable from trifecta distance but still live to tell the tale about a win.
H) After committing 7 turnovers in the first half, the Spurs only had 2 more the rest of the way while forcing the Lakers to a total of 16 turnovers. Way to clean up their act, eh?
I) The Lakers are playing poorly these days, but make no mistake about it, they'll be back. It's not rocket science to guess that.
Your Three Stars
It's hard to decide the order, and credit goes to the entire team for playing a terrific team game, but these three were the best of the best:
3 - George Hill -- RJ would've made it if not for all those missed open threes. Hill definitely makes an impact the most on defense, and the offense he provides is nice, too. 10 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 4 BLOCKS! Wow.
2 - Tony Parker -- This is hard. Tony played superbly, and he's also deserving of that number 1 star. 23 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals (that led to breakaway layups).
1 - DeJuan Blair -- Any time you go up against two hulking trees with only your 6-7 height but a girth rivaling that of the equator, expect a sore body the next day. And for that, along with his great play, Blair gets the top nod. 17 points (8-14 FGs), 15 rebounds (6 offensive), 2 steals, 1 block, 2 TOs, 5 fouls. Also, he dropped this gem during the NBA TV post game interview:
It doesn't matter how tall you are, as long as you got the heart.
True dat, DeJuan. But I will end this with a rather satisfying quote, which Mr. Ginobili succinctly put, "only a December game" be damned:
It’s always great to beat the champion.
Yes it does, and by season's end, we all hope you will be the champion, Manu.
Up Next: It's getting real serious. The West's #2 team, the Dallas Mavericks, are again in the crosshairs as the Spurs visit Dallas. Will Dirk play or not? I'm guessing he will because Carlisle is far from going CIA, and would prefer winning each and every regular season game then choke away playoff games. That is the truth. As for the Spurs, let's keep on keeping on, shall we?