As the Pounding the Rock writer-in-exile in Los Angeles, I try to attend every Spurs game played here at the Staples Center. Which meant I had tickets to the Spurs Monday game against the Clippers and the Tuesday game against the Lakers. Alas, the best laid plans of mice and men (I am the latter, though I now feel like the former).
I did make the Clippers game. However, as the game wore on, so did I. I couldn’t tell if my malaise arose from the Spurs’ failure to hold several leads against the favored Clippers or was caused by an actual illness. Unfortunately, it was both. My illness led me to surrender my seat for the Lakers game. As a result, this report on the back-to-back games will be based on one live game appearance at the Staples Center and one game watched from the comfort of my couch, cold pills and cough drops in hand: the first Spurs game in Los Angeles I have missed in years.
My visit to Staples Center Monday evening was my first since Kobe Bryant’s stunning death last Sunday. Even though the game was against the Clippers, the streets outside resembled a Lakers game. On virtually every street corner, vendors were selling all types of Kobe, or Kobe and Gianna, gear. And while the unofficial Kobe tribute in front of Staples had been removed earlier in the day, a more official one has been added to busses and trains throughout the city, such as this one on the train I rode to the game:
As with every Spurs’ road game, Spurs gear also abounded outside and inside the arena. Along with the usual Robinson, Duncan and Parker jerseys, and others honoring local starDeMar DeRoazan (Compton High and USC), this year for the first time I also saw Murray and Walker IV jerseys. Strangely, I did not see a single Manu Ginobili uniform, a failing I had planned to remedy Tuesday night, but could not. (I did wear one of my numerous Manu shirts for the Lakers game watching from my couch, so I get partial credit.)
Back to the game against the Clippers. As my fellow writers have commented, though the Spurs fell short, there were many encouraging signs. Even the LA Times sports section report on the game pointed out that the Spurs two stars “provided a one-two punch to rival the L.A.’s two-star attack.” I would argue that LaMarcus Aldridge and DeRozan actually outplayed the Clippers’ top guns, especially offensively. As good as the Clippers defense can be, they had a great deal of trouble with those two.
The Clippers also could not contain Patty Mills, whose box-score line looked somewhat like one I would put up with 13 shots taken, all three pointers. I would be thrilled to go 6 for 13 for a game, as Patty did. (He did not do as well Tuesday night.)
Even more encouraging for the future of the Spurs, the Spurs’ line-up down the stretch, as chosen by the best NBA coach ever, included youngsters Derrick White and Lonnie Walker IV. Pop clearly decided that the best players to defend the multi-faceted Clipper attack included White and Walker, as those two were matched up with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George whenever possible. While not ultimately successful, the confidence shown by Pop in the young fellas bodes well for the future.
Tuesday’s game brought a re-match with long-time rival LeBron James and long-time friend Danny Green. Since I wasn’t at the game, I missed what the Lakers broadcasters described — a look-alike comparison on the big screen between DG and singer Lionel Ritchie. Hmmm.
I wish I missed the Spurs’ brick-fest in the first half. 20 points in the first 15 minutes of game-time, only 41 in the first 24 minutes. And as opposed to LMA’s dominant effort against the Clippers’ centers, he found it much more difficult going against all-world defender Anthony Davis. As a friend at the game texted me — AD is kryptonite to Aldridge.
As a result of 36% shooting, the Spurs were down 10 at the half despite committing only 3 turnovers and 6 fouls — several of those intentional on Dwight Howard, who has still not learned to shoot free throws after all these years.
Prior to the season, many (including me) questioned whether this Lakers’ squad would be good on defense. News flash: They are very good, fourth overall in the NBA. Frank Vogel has always been an outstanding defensive coach, and the Lakers’ starting five of Avery Bradley, DG, LeBron, AD and JaVale McGee has been excellent. LeBron’s decision to start playing D again, after several years of not doing so, along with the addition of Vogel, DG and AD, turned it around.
In the first half both teams struggled offensively. In the second half, only one team did: the Spurs. If I had been smarter with my health and my basketball watching, I would have gone to bed much earlier and missed the game turning into a blow-out. Of course, I would also have missed LeBron’s fourth quarter explosion of five consecutive three-pointers. Sadly, most of them on Young SkyWalker IV. The good news is that after putting Walker on George and Leonard the night before, Pop felt confident enough to put the youngster on LeBron Tuesday. The bad news is that doing so turned out terribly, even though Walker did make a few threes of his own on the other end.
Perhaps we can put some blame for the blow-out loss on the NBA’s decision to schedule this brutal back-to-back on the road to start the Spurs annual Rodeo Road Trip. We could have predicted the second game would be a struggle. As my Monday night companion commented, the LA nightlife is undefeated.
But instead it felt like, absent some bad bounces and breaks, the Spurs did as well as they could against the Clippers but were unable to muster a second consecutive 100% effort and performance two nights in a row. And without such an effort and performance, they just aren’t as good as either L.A. team. Which is a big change from the prior 20 years.