Any preview of the Lakers-Spurs match up will have to account for the fact that neither of these teams is the same that played most of the regular season. Injuries have handicapped both teams for big chunks of the year and in the Lakers' case, have completely changed the makeup of the team. With Kobe Bryant out, this is an entirely different squad. Now that Parker is back and Ginobili will be available, the Spurs should see many of their recent troubles disappear.
That being said, we can't really ignore what happened when these teams meet, so let's first take a quick look at the season series.
Season series: Spurs win two of three
Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol struggled in the first game despite both getting double-doubles. Howard turned it over six times and Gasol shot 3-10 from the field. Kobe carried the offense, scoring 28 points while Duncan and Parker carried the Spurs. This is the Danny-Green-game-winner game. Spurs won 84-82.
Both of LA's big men were missing in the second match of the season but the Lakers got a great contribution from Metta World Peace and Earl Clark had his breakout game. Nash and Bryant weren't at their most effective but they contributed a combined 45 points and 14 assists. The Spurs had a balanced attack but Parker and Ginobili did most of the damage. The Spurs led by as much as 17 but they turned it over too much and let the Lakers back into it in the fourth. Spurs won 108-105.
The final game was less than a week ago, so you probably remember what happened. The Lakers, with Steve Blake leading the way, went nuts from three point range and Dwight and Pau controlled the boards. Tony Parker had one of his worst games of the season and the Spurs just didn't have the firepower to pull away when they had the chance. Lakers won 91-86.
Now that we've looked at how those games went, let's focus on how the next few might go.
How will the Lakers try to hurt the Spurs?
The Lakers are missing their best perimeter scorer in Kobe Bryant, which means isolations will likely not be their weapon of choice as much as it was in the regular season. The offense will flow through the post, where LA has two great options in Gasol and Howard. The idea will be to overpower the Spurs bigs and command double teams. After that, they will swing the ball to an open shooter. The Lakers don't really have a lot of dead eye spot up shooters and as a team rank 12th in the league in those plays in terms of points per possession (PPP). But, like the Spurs found out last time these teams met, they have some streaky shooters that can certainly get hot.
The other plan of attack will be pick and rolls, assuming Steven Nash suits up. The Lakers are a good-not-great pick and roll team and the Spurs have gotten better at defending the ball handler, but with Tim Duncan usually choosing to stay back I could see the Lakers going into 1-5 sets involving Duncan to provide Nash with open mid range jumpers. If Nash hits consistently, the Spurs will probably adjust and send Duncan further out in the perimeter while trying to contain the roll man by helping off the weak side, ideally from MWP.
Since the Lakers don't have a perimeter scorer that can break down defenses anymore, the Spurs need to play close attention to Gasol, who will play the role of facilitator from the high post or the elbow. Defending cutters is key, since in the half court, the Lakers' options are limited.
How can the Spurs hurt the Lakers?
The Lakers are one of the worst teams in the league at guarding the pick and roll. They rank 19th in the league in PPP allowed to the ball handler and 25th in PPP allowed to the roll man. Ginobili and Parker will have to vary their attack, alternating between passing, taking outside shots to draw the big out, and penetrating to get to the line. Dribble drives where the Spurs swing the ball to shooters will need to be crisp, since the Lakers are very solid at defending spot up shooters.
LA's biggest problem is perhaps their transition defense. It's not hard to catch the Lakers making silly mistakes in transition, like not stopping the ball or turning their back when jogging back after made buckets. If the Spurs push the pace, they should be able to get a lot of points before the defense is set both on fast breaks or with shooters spreading out for secondary break opportunities. Parker and Leonard will be key here as well as Ginobili with his passing.
Finally, Parker needs to make up for the damage Nash makes on P&Rs on the other side by exposing him in isolation situations, the open court and on pick and rolls, ideally involving several screens to attack their bigs while they are moving. Making Nash chase him through off-ball screens could also tire the 39-year-old PG and make him inefficient on offense. If the Lakers switch Meeks onto Parker, Tony needs to be equally aggressive and whoever gets Nash needs to make him work on defense. The Spurs have a huge advantage in the open court, and when the Lakers' defense is spread out. To make LA pay, San Antonio needs to avoid posting up Duncan too much. Having Tim get shots in pick and pop situations should open driving lanes for the perimeter guys.
Who will prevail?
I don't think I risk offending Laker fans if I say the Lakers have three above-average to great players and not much else. That's not a huge discovery on my part, either. Two of those players play the same position but are starting to understand each other better and can play heavy minutes. The other can't, and they lost their only consistent shooting guard, which means guys like Steve Blake, Darius Morris, Jodie Meeks or even Andrew Goudelock and Chris Duhon could get minutes. Not the scariest bunch.
Then there are the forwards. MWP is still a good defender that can muscle his way inside and hit an open three but he shouldn't be a game-changer. Behind him there is Devin Ebanks but D'Antoni refuses to play him so they don't have back up small forward. When Metta sits, one of Earl Clark or Antwan Jamison will man that spot, which would allow the Spurs to have a three big lineup or go small and try to run. Jamison has great range and Clark can hit an open jumper but neither can create their own shot.
This is all a long way to say that the Lakers just don't seem to be a good, versatile team. If the Spurs can play a bit better than they have over these past few weeks, there is no reason to fear an upset. The Spurs have a better bench, are more talented in more positions and have the tools to hurt the Lakers (pick and roll offense, a couple of athletic guys that can run the break) and to stop them (solid if inconsistent pick and roll defense, a couple of good post defenders),which makes me optimistic about the Spurs' chances to end the series early.
Assuming Duncan and Parker can perform at a high level, as they have most of the season, Splitter's play on the defensive side will be one of the keys to success. Anything Ginobili gives the team will be gravy and as long as Leonard can match MWP's production, the Spurs should be fine. Of course, when guys like Howard, Pau and Nash are in the fold, everything is possible and the last thing I want to do is to underestimate the opponent. But I can't see the Lakers imposing their will on the Spurs for four games out of seven.
Stats via NBA.com/Stats and MySynergySports