First things first: this game means nothing. Nash was out, the Lakers haven't even practiced under D'Antoni and the schizophrenic Spurs decided they would emulate the Grizzlies and go big up front: play disruptive defense, get offensive boards and grind out a win. The Spurs got a W and the Lakers got another loss but we can't draw conclusions from this match. This game means nothing. But it sure was exciting. Let's start from the beginning. Did I mention that this game means nothing? Yep, just making sure that was well-communicated.
With Steve Nash and even Steve Blake out with injuries, all eyes were on Tony Parker to be the difference maker in the game. After missing the contest against Sacramento, Parker returned to the starting lineup and looked sharp in the first quarter, propelling an early 10-0 Spurs run. The Lakers, with Kobe leading the way, responded by going on a 14-0 run of their own to regain the lead. After the hectic start, the Lakers finished the first quarter up 6.
The Spurs continued to struggle on offense throughout the first half, shooting .372 from the field and .250 from distance. What kept them in the game was their ability to cause turnovers and, for the first time this season, not turn the ball over. Dwight Howard struggled with the help defenders the Spurs brought over every time he posted up, committing 3 first half turnovers (6 total) all on his own. With the starting lineup defending well and not making mistakes, it was up to the deep Spurs bench to take advantage of their counterparts. Surprisingly, the Lakers subs held their own against a Spurs bench that had a quiet night and managed to keep their lead, going into the break up 5, 38 - 43.
The 3rd quarter saw the Spurs playing perhaps the best defense they've played so far. Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan took turns on Dwight Howard and the perimeter defenders prevented easy shots and closed out on time, allowing the Lakers only 16 points in that period. The only part of the Spurs defensive schemes that seemed to fail was their defensive rebounding. The Spurs allowed 5 offensive boards in the quarter and will need to address their rebounding woes by demanding a bigger commitment from the wings if their new defensive style is going to work. While the 13 points off 13 offensive boards the Lakers got is not too bad, it could have been the difference between a win and a loss. Going into the 4th, the Spurs were up one point, 60 - 59.
The final quarter was a bucket-for-bucket affair. The Spurs bench finally made an appearance to put them ahead, but the Lakers rallied and regained a minimum lead after a Jamison corner 3 with 2:10 to go. Tim Duncan immediately responded with a tough jump shot from the top of the key to give the Spurs the lead back.
Gasol hit a couple of free throws and then, with 1:03 to go, Bryant found him open on a pick and pop. Pau sank the long jumper and the Spurs were down 3. With the shot clock winding down, Splitter had to attempt a running layup that was blocked out of bounds by Gasol. Fortunately, Duncan hit a running layup against Dwight Howard after the inbound to put the Spurs down 1, with 40:8 seconds to go. The Lakers went with the same Bryant-Gasol pick and pop play, but the Spurs closed out quickly on the Spaniard. He found Metta World Peace on the corner who, after pump-faking, took and missed a wide open 3-pointer. I mean, because you really had to be scared shitless when MWP takes the game-winning three, right? Right. Time-out Spurs and time for Gregg Popovich to shine.
Parker brought the ball over, he passed it to Duncan, who handed it over to Leonard at the top of the arc while he went to set a pick for Danny Green on the right block. Green came off the paint and with Kobe closing out late, he hit a 3-pointer to give the Spurs a 2-point lead. According to Parker's post-game interview, Pop knew Kobe likes to sag a bit and stay in the paint and designed the play for Green to take advantage of it. Green responded to Pop's trust by hitting the tough shot and the Spurs got a 2-point lead.
The Lakers inbounded to Gasol who was supposed to find Kobe, but Kawhi Leonard played fantastic ball denial defense on Bryant, forcing Pau take a corner 3 that missed. Ball game. And that, my friends, is why coaching matters. Speaking of coaching, several months from now, we will see if indeed the D'Antoni hiring was the right move for these Lakers. For now, we should just be glad we have the stability in Coach Pop.
- Manu looked terrible once again. His shot was off, he committed two silly turnovers and couldn't get going offensively. I'm sure he simply needs time, but it was weird not seeing him in the crunch time lineup. Nash was out and Manu was barely a shell of himself -- call it even for now, then.
- Diaw keeps playing lazily, for lack of a better word. He's only giving a token effort on box-outs and other teams are feasting on his lack of hustle. Hopefully, this is just an early season thing for a player that often has a hard time finding motivation.
- Speaking of short bigs who don't box out (kidding!), DeJuan Blair is playing solid, smart basketball and is making a case for more minutes. His penchant for steals goes well with the team's new found defensive identity and, while he still shows some problems finishing at the rim, he's contributing to the offense with his energy and passing.
- Neal and Mills had little impact on this game. They played a combined 14 minutes and only Patty hit a shot. A let down game was coming and this was it. Jackson hit a long, buzzer-beating 3 but didn't have a great showing either. If you think about it, this may be a recall of last season's playoff failure -- with the stars from both teams playing heavily (Duncan spent 36 minutes, Parker 34, Kobe 38, Gasol 37, and Dwight a whopping 40 minutes), the Spurs bench couldn't get going when faced with the other team's starters. Again, while the deep bench helps during the regular season, the money games in the playoffs where the best players are in the court nearly at all times tends to nullify that bench strength. Just something to consider going forward.
- Leonard wasn't particularly good this game, especially on offense. His defense on Kobe to finish the game was great, but overall not the best game for Kawhi, who keeps getting rightfully called for charges on fastbreaks. They may have found this weakness in his game, and if you can (and still want to) remember, RJ used to get called often on charging fouls, too.
- Tiago Splitter was great tonight. He got the team extra possessions (6 off boards and 2 steals) through hustle against an imposing front line. He is contesting further away from the basket and defended Gasol and Howard well while mostly playing within himself on offense.
Your Three Stars
3 - Danny Green (11 points, 5 rebounds, 3 steals)
Danny needs to figure out an alternative for that runner of his. It just doesn't fall and it often gets him called for charges. Other than that, he played a pretty good game. He did his best against an inspired Bryant and hit 4-7 on his outside shots, including the 3-pointer that would win the Spurs the game. Let's hope this is a sign of things to come for Green.
2 - Tony Parker (19 points, 4 rebounds, 7 assists)
Tony scored when the team needed him to at the beginning and end of the game. Even when they switched MWP onto him, he remained aggressive. No one suffers the Spurs' spacing problems with Duncan and Splitter playing together like Parker does but he did what a player of his caliber has to do and found a way to contribute in other ways, pulling down 4 boards and dishing 7 assists. And he only turned the ball over once!
1 - Tim Duncan (18 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 blocks)
Timmy is giving the team a consistent 18 and 9 game in and game out and has, except for the Clippers game, outplayed every big he's gone up against. Duncan is having a great season so far and without him anchoring the defense and scoring timely buckets, the Spurs wouldn't have beaten the Lakers.
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