You might as well know from the get-go that I'm not going to talk about Kobe Bryant today. Either in praise or eulogy, now is just not the appropriate time to crack open that box. And anyway, nothing I could say would be better than Matt Moore's piece this week for CBS' Eye on Basketball. Moore gives us a multitude of gems, but this might be the best:
Kareem had a farewell tour. KG is going out quietly and to little fanfare, leaving the future to ambiguity like Duncan has. Kobe is having the end strapped to his body with duct tape, forced to carry its weight as he tries to trudge a few miles more.
One person from the Lakers organization who I do want to mention is General Manager Mitch Kupchak. If being a leader is convincing people to do what you want because they want to do it, Mitch qualifies as practically Churchillian. His guys play with earnestness, despite the franchise pulling a tank job only slightly less blatant than that of Sam Hinkie's Sixers. And, AND, the guy literally has Nick Young doing his job FOR HIM. Say what you want about the Lakers, but sleep on them at your peril. They are, after all, one of only two teams this year who have defeated both the Golden State Warriors and the Atlanta Hawks (aka, the two best teams in the league.)
Friday night, they dropped by the AT&T Center for a game with the other team who's pulled that trick this season. Unlike the last meeting between Lakers and Spurs, though, one could sense that there might be few recognizable aspects of competition at play here. To start, the Lakers were wearing terrible, Warrior-aping black sleeved uniforms, they'd lost 11 of their last 14 games, and their leading scorer and figurehead was gone for the season, which means they will have lost at least 450 games to injury by season's end. Oh, and the Spurs had just seen their 4-game winning streak snapped in a nationally-televised loss to the Bulls.
"It's easier to focus, to be ready when you were embarrassed," Ginobili said. "We played a terrible game yesterday, so we were willing to be back on the court and sort of redeem ourselves."
This particular combination of factors led to a 9-0 Spurs run to begin the game and a 19 point lead three minutes into the second quarter. The Spurs swung the ball across the court with the casual mien of infielders throwing a baseball around the horn after a strikeout. When Duncan came back into the game before halftime, it was tempting to make a crack about Popovich playing the role of Tom Thibodeau needlessly wearing down his players. The whimsical mood was heightened by Bill Schoening either unconsciously or consciously making Carlos Boozer's name sound like "Boobzer" (I firmly believe it was the latter.)
The only bright spot for the Lakers was San Antonio native Jordan Clarkson, who was making his first career start in place of the mysteriously DNP-CDed Jeremy Lin, and whose play reminded me of the talented kid in The Mighty Ducks who falls victim to redistricting and has to move from the really good team to the ragtag band of misfits. His efficient shooting, nifty passing, and general competence seemed more like an audition for a contender to come rescue him than an actual effort at keeping the Lakers in this game. Regardless, his 11-4-3 line wasn't nearly enough to dent the Spurs' advantages, even if it did come on efficient 5-9 shooting.
Come halftime - a little before, if we're honest - the SA twitterverse decided to invest its attention in Coach Mike Budenholzer's Hawks, who were putting the finishing touches on their 15th consecutive victory:
Opinion: if it can’t be the Spurs, I can’t think of a more fun Finals than Warriors-Hawks.— Pounding the Rock (@poundingtherock) January 24, 2015
(But if it CAN be the Spurs, obviously a Pop-Bud grudge[less] match would be best, right?)
(As a side note, and not to sound like Dennis Rodman talking about Larry Bird, I have to wonder how much of the chatter regarding the Hawks has to do with them rising so starkly above the wretched East, and how much has to do with them, you know, BEING THE ATLANTA HAWKS.)
I'm just glad Klay Thompson was gracious enough to save his 37-point quarter for after the Spurs had finished.
Anyway, whether it was the typical Spurs 2nd half malaise, or just the scrappy version of the Lakers finally showing up, things did get mildly interesting after halftime.
Manu with about the limpest foul on the break I’ve ever seen. Jordan Clarkson really impressive right now.— Pounding the Rock (@poundingtherock) January 24, 2015
It's worth noting that "interesting" in this case meant that the Lakers started making some shots and cut the Spurs' once-23 point lead down to 13 or so. Meanwhile, the greatest source of intrigue (at least temporarily) was the absence of Patty Mills, who was not first off the bench as had been recently. Pop instead opted to bring in Cory Joseph, who hit a 3-pointer and picked up 5 free throw attempts in his 18 minutes of mostly middle-quarter play. Mills would eventually check in just as the rest of the team began to check out late in the 3rd quarter, which opened the door for Young to cut the lead below single digits for the first time since the 1st quarter.
"Give (LA) credit for fighting the whole 48 minutes," Kawhi Leonard would say after the game.
In addition to Young, the Lakers have a lot of other youth on their roster. They say you can tell a lot about a young man based on how he treats his elders. If that's the case, this Laker team is a bunch of dudes you can brag about to your mother. They graciously allowed 38-year old Duncan and 37-year old Ginobili to waltz to the hoop time and time again. Some of that was facilitated by Tony Parker's penetration and Leonard's post play (the pair combined for a 32-16-7 line even though TP played only 22 minutes), some of it was a lack of defenders other than Ed Davis who would or could challenge at the rim, and some of it was just plain ol' Boozeritis on the defensive end. Which got the Lakers fans dreaming a bit:
Since the Spurs themselves looked pretty boozy at times, there's precious little to glean here in terms of the current state of the D.C.s. This game kicks off a long home stand, and despite the team shooting 40-ish percent and bricking 17 of their 24 three point attempts, they still managed to win rather easily against a Lakers team that would probably struggle to beat the LA D-Fenders. Outside of the first six minutes, the lack of urgency from the Spurs tonight was both frustrating and eminently excusable. Since even the "bad" teams the Spurs have faced recently were on weird hot streaks (think Detroit and Charlotte), it's been awhile since they've played a true bottom-feeder. The Lakers are most definitely that, and once SA asserted its dominance, the team seemed to lose interest quickly. To be clear, going on cruise control against an awful team in January is not only forgivable, it's practically a necessity in order to survive the overlong NBA season.
Going forward, four of the Spurs' next five games are against teams with records of .500 or worse. If the Spurs are going to climb their way up the Western Conference between now and April, they've got to sniff out these games the way a shark sniffs out a bucketful of chum. Churchill didn't become prime minister by taking nights off, and the Spurs have no hope of repeating their Finest Hour until they get more ruthless.
You might even say they need a little more Kobe in them.
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