While teaching me how to work an oven, Mom always said, "you can add time, but you can never take time away."
This quote has resonated with me while watching Kobe Bryant over his last couple injury-ridden seasons.
During the waning moments of regulation - the Lakers trailing the Spurs by a handful - Bryant tried to play hero ball, hurling a fadeaway three, the rock falling past the rim in a graceless airball. Ignoring the hi-fives offered by teammates, he retreated to the bench, nursing a dislocated finger in his shooting hand. A girl in a red sweater sat court-side, flinching from the gruesome injury, cupping her ears to mute the sound as trainer Gary Vitti seemed to snap the finger back in place.
The scene is a common spectacle for the devoted Lakers fan nowadays. For those who haven't fled the sinking Los Angeles ship, disasters seem to follow the legion of purple and gold, cataclysmic as the impending damage predicted from the San Andreas Fault.
First, it was the Chris Paul trade debacle. Then, the D12 train-wreck screeched off the rails with injuries and internal strife. The depth of the Lakers was further compromised after the hasty departure of Pau Gasol, seeking stability in Chicago.
After a rough loss against the better of the two Los Angeles franchises, the Clippers, the Spurs bounced back and finished the season sweep against the Lakers (4-0), improving to 84-77 all-time against the franchise with a 119-113 victory. Los Angeles has lost 17 of the past 20 meetings against San Antonio.
In the final night of Kobe vs. Duncan, Los Angeles proved their worth from the offensive part of the floor (despite ranking 27th in PPG with 96.5). Kobe displayed flashes of his vintage excellence, draining 25 points in 29 minutes. Duncan answered with 12 points and 13 boards.
Each time the Spurs attempted to bury the Lakers' momentum, Los Angeles would drain some outlandish shot and keep the comeback within reach. It was as if they played with extra vigor knowing this was Kobe's last game against the most comparable player of his era in The Big Fundamental; the Laker deputies backed the sheriff against the raiding and looting Spurs, offensively unloading in a field goal shootout.
Teams with losing records are usually testing grounds for Pop to implement various lineups and strategies. By the fourth quarter, the Lakers seemed to have a feasible shot of pulling the upset, potentially giving the Spurs their first back-to-back loss since last February 2015. Popovich countered the competitive lenience he coached Bryant with in the All-Star game, and instead initiated a rotation of primarily starters.
Lakers defense collapsing on penetration, their miscommunications on double/triple teams and trailing off the screen allowed openings on all parts of the court for the Spurs (LA ranks 4th most in PPG allowed, 106 per game). The San Antonio offense outworked Los Angeles in points in the paint (64-44), and fast break points (14-7). The offensive output was a very balanced effort by the Spurs; seven players finished in double figures.
The Spurs still had ring-rust following a lengthy All-Star break. As Ian Dougherty wrote in the last rehash, getting back into the rhythm of basketball greatness is crucial in an absence, especially after San Antonio was limited to a season-low 34 first-half points against the Clippers in Thursday nights loss.
The fourth quarter collapse against the Lakers could be attributed to exhaustion from the back-to-back, in which the LA won the quarter 38-34. The Spurs outshot the Lakers 54.5% from the field compared to 49.4%. When San Antonio makes over 50%, they are a perfect 25-0 this year. The Spurs usually shoot 48.9% (2nd in the league) and limit opponents 43.3% (3rd least in the league). Still, it's difficult to judge the Spurs' defensive struggles too harshly in the absence of Kawhi Leonard. Obviously, the Klaw's contributions are desperately missed on both sides of the floor; his ability to spread the defense likely would have finished off the Lakers back when they were trailing by 15 points.
Plus, the Black Mamba had a game.
Following a legendary 20 year run, it was a shame to see Kobe's last stand interrupted by the grim reminders of age, and the toll professional competition can take on a body. The Laker star's physical performance and Los Angeles's foreseeable franchise direction is burnt out by being left in the oven for far too long - playing time added over the years incapable of being subtracted.
This dilemma the Spurs purposefully avoided. Chef Popovich sits by his bench with one eye on the oven, one on the court -- monitoring his player's minutes, measuring them out with a tea spoon.
The Spurs PG bid "au revoir" to Kobe's swan song, netting 25 points and dishing six assists. Parker was on fire throughout the night from both mid-range and inside the paint, shot a perfect 7-7 from the free-throw line, and facilitated the offense with the confident swagger that often propelled his name into MVP conversations over the years.
Kyle Anderson deserves an honorable mention with a season high 14 points. Despite a steal against Kobe early in the game, Anderson fell just short of the MVP with a lackluster defensive display, spending most of the night being shot over or posted up by the retiring Los Angeles legend.
Tim Duncan is four blocks shy of becoming the fifth player in NBA history with 3,000 swats. He'll join impressive company. The list includes all Hall-of-Fame bigs Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Mark Eaton.
Head-to-head numbers between Bryant and Duncan in 82 meetings:
Kobe Bryant (39-42) Points Per Game: 25.5 Minutes Per Game: 39.6 Rebounds Per Game: 5.7
Tim Duncan (42-39) Points Per Game: 21.1 Minutes Per Game: 38.2 Rebounds Per Game: 12.2
Lakers head coach Byron Scott will be on the hot seat at the end of the season. The worst record he had as a head coach was 19-63 in his first season with Cleveland (2010-11), in which the Cavs fell a then NBA record 26 straight games post LeBron James' decision. The Lakers are 11-44, well out of the playoff picture, and are on par with finishing around this paltry record.
By The Numbers
20: The number of points scored by Jordan Clarkson. The San Antonio native was 4-5 from 3-point land (accounting for all four of the Lakers 3's in the first quarter). As I wrote in my USA vs. The World All-Star coverage, the talented young Lakers PG is a free agent this summer. Sure, his skill set are more congruous with the abilities of a shooting guard, and he isn't known as a consistent court general (however, he did contribute a respectable six assists in the game).
Could he be a reliable and healthy back-up to an aging to Tony Parker if R.C. Buford is willing to cough up the dough?
61: The games Bryant has played against the Spurs. Kobe averaged 23.6 points, 4.2 assists, 5.3 rebounds and shot 42.6% from the field.
32: The deficit the Blazers thrashed the Golden State Warriors. As of this writing, if the season ended today, the Spurs would play the seventh-seed Portland in the first round. After LMA left during the offseason, Rip City will be eager to exact their revenge on the Alamo City. The Spurs are now three games behind the Warriors for first.
86,000: The amount of times Kobe trended on twitter during his offensive explosion. The only other trending athlete mentioned more was Damian Lillard, who tallied over 100k tweets after his 51 point victory against Golden State.
Social Media Gossip
The end of an era.— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) February 19, 2016
Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant will go head-to-head one last time. https://t.co/5G7G3dDsMU