Lakers - Spurs Series Preview
When the Lakers had a private team meeting in Memphis prior to a January 23rd game that would put them eight games below .500 (17-25), their playoff outlook appeared bleak.
A Murphy’s Law season of injuries to that point – every starter and two key bench players has missed significant time – would continue into the second half of the season … nonetheless, the wins started piling up.
By the All-Star break, the Lakers were 25-29. A month later on March 17, they were 36-32. They finally appeared to have the full squad healthy, with Pau Gasol returning from 20 games missed to a plantar fascia tear, only to see Steve Nash go down with back/hip/hamstring issues at Sacramento on March 30, when they had barely any room to lose a game with the Utah Jazz charging towards the final playoff seed.
Mike D’Antoni turned to Gasol and Kobe Bryant, the two leading L.A. to six wins in seven games, keeping pace with the Jazz, the Lakers at long last clicking on both ends.
But – we mentioned Murphy’s Law already – then the worst case injury situation occurred with 3:08 left in L.A.’s 118-116 April 12 win over Golden State: Bryant went down. Giving everything he had while barely sitting a minute per game, Kobe tore his Achilles, and had season-ending surgery the next day.
If Nash is still out, it would be up to Steve Blake to answer the call in the backcourt, and he stepped up to partner Gasol and Dwight Howard inside in leading the Lakers to two more victories, capping a 5-0 finish to the regular season with an overtime victory over Houston on Wednesday that catapulted the Lakers from possibly missing the playoffs to the No. 7 seed.
Awaiting the Mamba-less Lakers in Round 1 are the No. 2 seeded San Antonio Spurs, whom L.A. defeated on Sunday evening, 91-86, behind a defense that held Tim Duncan’s team to 37.1 percent shooting and James Harden’s team to 41.7 percent In the finale.
But that isn’t the Spurs team the Lakers expect to see in San Antonio. For one, Manu Ginobili did not play – he’ll be back on Sunday for Game 1. Duncan was great (23 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks), but Tony Parker made only 1 of 10 shots, appearing to be in cruise control; the All-NBA First Team candidate will surely put himself into overdrive for the postseason.
However San Antonio performs, there’s a big part of L.A. that can be relieved to have given itself a chance, even without Bryant, considering where they were in January.
The Lakers went 28-12 since that game, and finished winning 8 of 9 games and five straight, going from eight games below .500 to eight games over. We took a closer look at the matchup all that late-season winning has delivered:
LAKERS: We have to start with the question mark surrounding when Steve Nash will return. Nash missed 24 games with a broken leg, the final eight games with hamstring/hip issues and is uncertain to be able to start the playoff series. He received an epidural on Tuesday and said he hopes to be available in Game 1, but we won’t know until Sunday. Nash started 50 games, averaging 12.7 points and 6.7 assists, missing another season in the 50-40-90 club (he’s done it four times, the most ever) by shooting 49.7 percent on field goals, 43.8 percent on 3’s (fifth in the NBA) and 92.2 percent at the free throw line.
Steve Blake appeared in 45 games for the Lakers, starting 13, and missing 37 games from mid-November to late January due to an abdominal injury. Blake averaged 7.3 points and 3.8 assists, while shooting 42.1 percent on 3-pointers, tied for 13th in the league. Yet he emerged when it mattered most, averaging 23.5 points, 5.5 assists and 6.0 rebounds in the final two games without Kobe Bryant.
UPDATE: Nash participated in practice two straight days on Friday and Saturday. Before the team left for San Antonio, he said: “I plan on playing unless there’s a setback between now and (Sunday). So far, so good.” Coach Mike D’Antoni stated there would be “a possibility” both Nash and Blake in the backcourt together during Friday’s media session, but remained mum on Saturday as to who would start: “We’ll see (on Sunday), he said. “We haven’t quite settled in yet.” Because Nash has not played in more than three weeks, there could be limitations on his minutes, according to the coaching staff. “We’ll see,” D’Antoni said. “Obviously, he’s not going to play a lot of minutes. Whatever he can give us will be great, and then we’ll play it by ear. As the series goes on, he should get stronger.”
SPURS: Behind the second-best field-goal percentage of his career (52.8 percent, leading all guards), All-Star Tony Parker averaged 20.3 points, 7.6 assists and 3.0 rebounds. He missed eight games in March due to an ankle injury, but is now healthy and primed for the postseason. Before that injury, Parker was very much in the discussion for league MVP. He shot only 1 for 10 in L.A.’s April 14 win, but was essentially in cruise control in April; expect him to come out very strong in Game 1.
ADVANTAGE: SPURS. Despite the terrific play of Blake and upside potential for Nash should he return, Parker has been a top three point guard in the NBA with Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook.
LAKERS: In his first season in Los Angeles, Jodie Meeks appeared in 78 games, averaging 7.9 points and 2.2 rebounds on 35.7 percent from deep, and 89.6 free throws. Meeks closed in a shooting slump, hitting 29.1 percent field goals and 28.6 percent threes in April, but always draws defenders to space the floor thanks to his quick release and reputation. Significantly, he brings terrific and consistent energy on defense.
SPURS: Danny Green played and started in 80 games, averaging a career-best 10.5 points, along with 3.1 rebounds. He led the Spurs in 3-point field goal makes (177) and finished seventh in the league in 3-point field-goal percentage (42.9) as one of the league’s most improved players. He also beat the Lakers with a late triple in November.
ADVANTAGE: SPURS. This was to be L.A.’s area of greatest advantage, were Kobe Bryant to be healthy, but his Achilles tear gives the edge to San Antonio thanks to Green’s consistent place on the team and terrific shooting. Meeks will do a good job of limiting Green’s open looks from three, however, which wasn’t always a Bryant strength this season.
LAKERS: Metta World Peace appeared in 75 games for the Lakers, starting 66, while averaging 12.4 points and 5.0 rebounds on 34.2 percent from 3-point range. He led the club in 3-pointers made (141) after shooting at a 29.6 clip a year ago. World Peace somehow missed only six games late in the season after undergoing surgery for a torn lateral meniscus, returning to play in the final five for L.A.
SPURS: Kawhi Leonard played 58 games in his second season, missing a portion of the season due to quadriceps tendinitis and knee issues. He shot 49.4 percent towards 11.9 points, while also pulling down 6.0 rebounds with 1.8 steals, and picked it up after the All-Star break, averaging 14.0 points and 6.7 boards.
ADVANTAGE: PUSH. As one would expect, World Peace hasn’t really been himself since returning from knee injury, just as Leonard has picked up his play. With that said, MWP has a ton of playoff experience, and always seems to find a way to contribute even if his numbers aren’t there.
LAKERS: Pau Gasol played in 49 games for the Lakers, the fewest of his 12-year career. He averaged 13.7 points, 8.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.2 blocks on 46.6 percent field goals. Gasol battled injuries all year long – tendinitis, plantar fasciitis and a concussion, while also recovering from surgery on his torn plantar fascia. But in April, he’s very much returned to All-Star form, posting 17.5 points, 12.1 boards, 6.6 assists and 1.3 blocks on 51.3 percent field goals.
SPURS: San Antonio will lead you to believe that Tiago Splitter plays center and Tim Duncan power forward, but at least from our perspective, the rim protector on one end who draws double teams on the low block – Duncan – is the pivot man. Splitter, meanwhile, made a nice jump this season 81 games (58 starts), only sitting out the regular-season finale. He averaged 10.3 points and 6.4 rebounds on 56.0 percent field goals, flashing a nice game on both ends.
ADVANTAGE: LAKERS. So much has fallen on the shoulders of the Spaniard in Bryant’s absence, and he answered the call in limited opportunity in the final two games, posting his second triple-double in three contests with a 17-point, 20-rebound, 11-assist performance vs. Houston to secure the No. 7 seed. Splitter defended Gasol (3 for 17 field goals) very well in the April 14 matchup and has improved markedly as a player, but approaching anywhere near Gasol’s current level of play is likely a career goal for any talented young big man.
LAKERS: Dwight Howard started 76 games for L.A., missing six due to a torn labrum in his right shoulder, but none due to back surgery in the spring of 2012 from which he’s only now started to fully recover. Howard averaged 17.1 points on 57.8 percent shooting (second in the NBA), led the league in rebounds at 12.4 and swatted 2.4 shots per game. His defense has returned to the level that made him a three-time Defensive Player of the Year in Orlando, and was particularly outstanding during the team’s 8-1 streak to close the regular season.
SPURS: Apparently drinking the same #vino that saw Kobe Bryant play at the most elite of levels in his 17th season, Tim Duncan was fantastic in his 16th, appearing in 69 games towards averages of 17.8 points, 9.9 boards, 2.7 assists and 2.7 blocks on 50.2 percent field goals. A career sub-70 percent free throw shooter, Duncan converted on 81.7 percent from the charity stripe.
ADVANTAGE: PUSH. Duncan has been so good that he’s my and many people’s choice for All-NBA First Team this season, but Howard has really emerged in the last several weeks, and his insane athleticism will be difficult for Duncan – and Splitter – throughout the series. Nobody thinks the game better than San Antonio’s captain, and nobody has Howard’s combination of strength, size and athleticism, making this a particularly fun matchup.
LAKERS: A fully healthy Lakers team would feature a solid, veteran bench of Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks, Antawn Jamison and Earl Clark, but injuries have the former two in the starting line up, leaving Jamison and Clark to be flanked by youngsters Darius Morris and, potentially, just-signed Andrew Goudelock. Jamison averaged 9.4 points and 4.8 rebounds per game on 46.4 percent from the floor and 36.1 percent on 3’s and is playing through a sprained wrist; Clark played sparingly during the first couple months of the season for L.A. but blew up at San Antonio in January (22 points, 13 rebounds) and ended up starting 36 games, averaging 7.3 points and 5.5 rebounds; Morris will see minutes thanks to his on-ball defense, and Goudelock has a chance for minutes as he can create his own shot on the perimeter, something the Lakers lack with Bryant and Nash out. Chris Duhon is an alternative, capable of running the offense and hitting threes (36.3 percent).
SPURS: The key to San Antonio’s bench is Manu Ginobili, a fantastic player who has battled injuries all season and returned for limited minutes in the season finale after missing much of the final few weeks due to a hamstring injury. The Argentinean averaged 11.8 points, 4.6 assists and 3.4 rebounds on 42.5 percent field goals and 35.3 percent on threes. Another key bench player, Boris Diaw, will miss the series due to surgery to remove a cyst, while Stephen Jackson was waived and replaced with longtime NBA veteran Tracy McGrady. Other reserves that have contributed of late include: Gary Neal (9.5 points on 41.2 percent field goals and 35.5 percent threes); DeJuan Blair (5.4 points and 3.8 rebounds); Matt Bonner (44.2 percent from three, which would rank fifth if he made enough to qualify); Nando De Colo (a rookie who showed flashes of strong play) and Cory Joseph (a D-League call up who appeared in 28 games); and Patty Mills (5.1 points in 58 games). Those sure to get minutes are Ginobili, Neal, Bonner and Blair, but Gregg Popovich has been known to change things up considerably when needed.
ADVANTAGE: PUSH. One could make a good argument for the Spurs if Ginobili ends up being a healthy Ginobili, while a return from Nash would solidify L.A.’s bench of Blake-Jamison-Clark. More realistically, we’ll have to wait and see if one of these units can tip the scales in a series that will likely feature very heavy minutes to starting players, particularly on L.A.’s end.
LAKERS: The biggest challenge for the No. 7 seed will be finding a way to create offense on the perimeter, while still getting Gasol and Howard the basketball in good spots. Blake has filled in for Nash and Bryant to even more of a degree than could have been expected, but Blake’s the first to acknowledge that he’s not Kobe or Nash. The Spurs will game plan to try and take away passing angles to the bigs, trying to make Blake and Meeks create something on the perimeter, and that’s a legit concern for L.A. A return to form from Nash would certainly alleviate some of those issues.
SPURS: The No. 2 seed’s challenge will be finding consistent ways to score against a defense that’s been fantastic in the past few games, thanks in large part to excellent pressure on the perimeter from Blake and Meeks and paint protection from Gasol, and especially, Howard, who is shutting everything down. Duncan’s low post dominance is thus negated to a degree, putting lots of emphasis on Parker and Ginobili to make L.A.’s defense collapse and free up shooters. The Lakers will count on the bigs to protect the paint, and try to run the Spurs off the three-point line as they did in the last matchup … easier said than done, of course, to one of the best executing teams in recent NBA memory.
The Lakers and Spurs met three times in 2012-13, with L.A. narrowly losing the first two matchups before winning the final meeting one week ago. Here’s a quick hitter from each of those contests, with links to our Lakers.com Gameday pages.
Spurs 84, Lakers 82 – Nov. 13 @ STAPLES Center:
A go-ahead 3-pointer from San Antonio’s Danny Green with 9.3 seconds left gave the visitors an 84-82 victory. Pau Gasol had the potential game winner come out with time winding down, as the Lakers dropped their first game under interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff. Kobe Bryant finished with 28 points and eight assists, while Dwight Howard recorded 13 points, 15 rebounds and three blocks.
Spurs 108, Lakers 105 – Jan. 9 @ San Antonio:
Despite missing all three big men – Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill – to various injuries, the Lakers nearly overcame a 17-point deficit in large part because of Earl Clark. He finished with 22 points and a team-high 13 rebounds off the bench, but his 3-pointer that could have forced overtime missed. Kobe Bryant scored a game-high 27 points, while Metta World Peace had 23, to go along with eight rebounds and seven steals.
Lakers 91, Spurs 86 – April 14 @ STAPLES Center:
Holding the Spurs to just 37 percent field goals, the Lakers used a strong defensive effort in winning their first game since losing Kobe Bryant for the season. In a closely contested game throughout, the Lakers used a 15-4 run in the fourth quarter to pull away from the Spurs. Steve Blake scored 23 points – 18 in the first half – grabbed five boards and dished out four assists, while Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol combined for 33 of the team’s 58 rebounds.
- LAL & SAS have met 11 times in the postseason, the Lakers advancing 8 times (most recent matchup in 2008 WCF).
- Since the All-Star break, L.A. 13-1 at home and 7-7 on the road. San Antonio is 13-4 at home and 3-8 on the road since the break.
- SAS post All-Star break: 16-12 overall, 3-8 on the road, including seven straight road losses to end the year (@MIN, @HOU, @MEM, @OKC, @DEN, @LAL, @GSW).
- Pau Gasol last 3 games (2 triple-doubles): 16.7 ppg, 15.7 ppg 7.7 apg, 1.7 bpg; Dwight Howard last 3 games: 23.3 ppg, 14.0 rpg, 2.7 bpg, 1.7 spg
- LAL pace in the first 74 games: 97. In April: 93.5.
- LAL were last seeded No. 7 in 2006-07 & 2005-06 against Mike D'Antoni/Steve Nash PHX teams.