Nobody forecasted the Lakers' perimeter defense to be anything more than just awful prior to the season. Metta World Peace has, of course, remained effective in this capacity, to some extent, but you could have argued someone like Antawn Jamison would be more effective as a turnstile at Staples Center than a small forward in the Western Conference. But the idea was that the presence of Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard would alleviate the pressure on the backcourt, allowing those players to funnel the offense toward the two shot-erasers.
But neither big man, nor their backup Jordan Hill, was available against the Spurs on Wednesday, and Tony Parker was able to get whatever he wanted, for the most part. Still, even with Los Angeles starting something called Robert "McDancypants" Sacre at center, San Antonio needed a final stand at the buzzer to hold off the Lakers, 108-105, at the AT&T Center.
Gregg Popovich was as far from happy as ever.
He watched his team's 16-point lead vanish in the final seven minutes of the game during a steady Laker surge, the effects of which were exacerbated by two quick Stephen Jackson technical fouls and a subsequent ejection with 3:32 remaining. In Pop-land, minimal solace is taken out of a win like this (48 Minutes of Hell's Andrew McNeill called it a 'moral defeat' after the game), but if there was a silver lining -- other than, you know, winning -- it was the play of Kawhi Leonard.
(Incoming long quote.)
"I thought (Leonard) was the highlight of our game tonight," Pop said, praising Kawhi's defensive performance on Kobe Bryant, in particular. "I thought we were really raggedy on offense to the point where I didn't know who was out on the court. I didn't recognize that basketball team."
"Not sharing the ball the way we should. Taking bad shots -- contested shots, no pace -- was really tough to watch. But Kawhi Leonard was the star of the show as far as I'm concerned," Popovich continued. "He had a great night and is getting better defensively and starting to find his way offensively. I thought that was great."
The rest of Pop's interview post-game came completely void of any intention to be our friend. The scrum dispersed after a little more than a minute when he asked, "Anymore questions?" and followed with a death stare. There were no more questions. I think everyone was comfortable with that.
Every bit of defense Leonard could spare for the Spurs on this night was needed, because without Howard, Gasol or Hill in the fold, Earl Clark went off. The young NBA journeyman popped off the bench to go for 22 points and 13 boards -- both career highs -- in 27 minutes for the Lakers, and nearly sent the game to overtime with a deep three-pointer that glanced off the rim at the buzzer. The Lakers' box score had more "Not With Team" and "Did Not Play" designations than the Dallas Cowboys' front office has brain cells, and still Clark pours in 11 fourth-quarter points and gave his team a shot to win.
"I know what I'm capable of," Clark said. "I just wanted the opportunity. It's unfortunate Pau and Dwight had to get hurt, but I just wanted to bring energy.
"Ever since I have been in the NBA I have been wanting consistent playing time, so I am glad I played well tonight to maybe crack the rotation."
But this game shouldn't have been so close, even with the former Louisville Cardinal going off the way he did. San Antonio was an absolute mess offensively, turning the ball over 19 times to give them 39 turnovers in the last two contests (they had 20 on Monday in New Orleans). The Spurs gave the ball away five times in the final six minutes alone, consequently giving the Lakers more than enough opportunities to get back in the game.
But, if there was a second silver lining, Manu Ginobili played well again. He dunked two whole times, and his three-pointer with 43 seconds remaining gave the Spurs barely enough cushion to escape with a win over the injury-riddled Lakers. Ginobili finished with 19 points, eight rebounds and four assists in 28 minutes.
"We played really poorly. Especially in the second half, everything was slow and we were not sharp or aggressive," said Manu, who didn't play poorly. "(The Lakers) made us make too many mistakes. Offensively you know they can score with players like (Steve) Nash and Kobe. They can make things happen."
But the Spurs survived, and in the standings that's all that matters. I know that's as cliche as it gets, but with Memphis looming on Friday it's a significant win. Still, with a team as undermanned as the Lakers were on this night, it's probably best to not make this habitual.
It's strange how things can work out. San Antonio was OK for the most part. Parker led the team in scoring again with 24 points -- though he did have six turnovers -- but we've come to expect that. The Spurs had 25 assists on 41 made shots, but we've come to expect those kinds of numbers as well. The trend that doesn't sit well, however, is the one where San Antonio continuously and courteously gives the ball to the other team, which in turn allows said team to take 95 shots (!!!) as the Lakers did on Wednesday.
But it's survival of the fittest from night to night in this league, and the Spurs once again passed the test.
-- There were five technicals given out in the game. The Lakers had three in the third quarter alone.
-- Stephen Jackson hit four threes tonight, really busting out of his slump.
-- Along press row, we were wondering: before Jack's ejection, when was the last time a Spurs player was ejected?
Follow along on Twitter: @mtynan_PtR