How quickly things change in the NBA. As the Rockets and Lakers were fighting tooth and nail for the privilege of facing the Spurs, I bullishly announced that I would bet money that the good guys were going to finish their first round series in five games or less. I honestly thought that the Spurs were that much better than either opponent but part of what drove me into optimism overdrive was the doom and gloom mood that Spurs fans had fallen in.
Smart, rational people pretty much laughed at my prediction and I can't blame them; the Spurs were not healthy and had been underwhelming for weeks while the Kobe-less Lakers were on the upswing and had even beaten the Spurs a couple of games back. Some thought the Spurs were in for a long fight and the team's ceiling seemed to have dropped significantly.
Fast-forward a couple of weeks. The Spurs just finished sweeping the Los Angeles Lakers and it was far from a shock. With injuries affecting other teams, the Spurs look every bit the part of a contender. How quickly can things change in the NBA. But now that the Spurs are doing well, let's hope they stay the same for a few more weeks.
I will try to keep this one short because there really is not a lot of analysis left to do. The great C.A. Clark of Silver Screen and Roll said after Game 3 that he couldn't find anything else to say that hadn't been said already and I'm kind of in the same spot. We all know the flaws of these Lakers and the strengths of the Spurs and they were both on full display tonight.
Pop went with Aron Baynes as a starter in Tiago Splitter's place and the Aussie did great against one of the best centers in the league. Baynes not only frustrated Howard by fronting him and staying physical without fouling, but he also showed flashes of a versatile offensive skill set. Danny Green started the game well, scoring the Spurs' first five points and Tony Parker kept the offense copacetic with eight early points and three assists. In the first Howard showed why he is so dangerous but also why he is not on the same level as other superstars. Dwight is not only a mess at the line, but he shows frustration too easily, which at this level means weakness.
If the Spurs had the upper hand with the starters, the difference was even bigger when the reserves checked in. Neal went on one of his scoring binges and Parker kept doing whatever he wanted on the likes of Chris Duhon and Darius Morris. The first half ended with the Spurs up 18 and no one in the arena or watching from home thought the Lakers had a shot at turning things around. The home team was too turnover prone and over-matched against the determined Spurs. This was barely a game for a quarter.
Dwight Howard basically gave up and got his second technical early in the third quarter. It felt like at that moment the Lakers were conceding the series. L.A. hit some three pointers in the third quarter to keep it from getting embarrassing, but the Spurs had it under control for the entire second half. They mercifully closed out the series with a sweep without playing any of the big three more than 30 minutes.
- As I mentioned, Pop went with Baynes to start the game in a move that reminded me of when he used Cory Joseph, who up until that point was mostly in Austin, to start in Parker's place when Tony went down. Pop puts a premium on continuity so he prefers to change things up on the more stable starters than the bench unit. Baynes did well and keeps looking like a viable fifth big.
- Parker showed some killer instinct and scored 15 first half points to make sure the Lakers didn't get any ideas of stretching out the series. Tony is looking more and more like himself lately. He went against d-leaguers but I'll take 23 points and four assists on 26 minutes any time.
- Manu and Duncan weren't great but they did what they had to do. After Duncan finished an alley oop last game, it was Ginobili's turn to throw down on the hapless Lakers.
- Bonner and Blair both had solid performances for the Spurs, which bodes well for a second round in which Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter may not be 100%. Blair, in particular, looked great, hitting floaters and defending adequately. The bench in general looked good, with Neal scoring efficiently and Joseph doing a solid job of running things
- Leonard had a good game while Green was just OK. The starting wings scored and rebounded well. Nothing to write home about but that type of performance just wasn't needed from them.
- Tracy McGrady got his first run as a Spur and mostly jogged around the court. He still has talent and I can see him contributing if he gets in shape, but only as a deep bench option.
- The Lakers have a big summer ahead of them. Re-signing Dwight Howard is a must, regardless of how disappointing his first season on the team might have been. Howard is a franchise center piece when healthy at a hard position to fill, to boot. Then it comes the time to decide what to do with Pau Gasol. Do they trade him for more parts? Keep him and hope to re-sign him to a discount after his deal expires? And how about Nash? Can he be their starting shooting guard for 82 games and take on a bigger role at this point in his career? Finally, there's the Kobe situation. I don't think the Lakers would ever amnesty him. But can he come back healthy at some point next season and will he be the same player or should the Lakers speed up the process of fitting the team to Howard? A lot of questions in LA.
The Spurs will play against either the Warriors or the Nuggets in the second round. As I'm writing this, the Warriors lead by ten points and could pull the upset, since they are up 2-1 already. The Spurs should be able to beat either team, but it will be good if the GSW-DEN series goes the distance. There will be time to worry about that later. For now, be happy, Spurs fans. The team swept the hated Lakers. It's not wrong to be optimistic about their chances of coming out of the West, but let's take it one step at a time. We weren't doomed before the playoffs and we are not the team to beat now.
For the opponent's perspective visit Silver Screen and Roll, where they are probably feeling suicidal. If you visit, be nice because they seem like a good bunch.