Lakers' 101-89 loss to San Antonio confirms possible first-round matchup to prove difficult
The Lakers were supposed to be the team San Antonio wanted to avoid in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Instead, the Spurs' 101-89 victory Sunday over the Lakers validated why San Antonio would be the most dangerous first-round matchup.
Of course, that's not really that much of a revelation. I recently went through a litany of positive and negative aspects that the Lakers would meet in the first round, whether they face San Antonio, Portland or Oklahoma City. I was also among the panel of writers who shared with the Kamenetzky Brothers that San Antonio would be the least favorable opponent the Lakers would like to encounter in the first round.
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said it "doesn't matter" who the team faces. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich still maintained his stance that he wouldn't want to meet the Lakers in the first round, whatsoever. And Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said the Spurs' victory provides proof the Lakers won't face them in the first round. After all, San Antonio (47-29) are currently locked in for the seventh seed, has won three consecutive games and has picked up quality victories against Oklahoma City, Cleveland, Boston, Orlando and the Lakers.
The Lakers (55-22) have a pretty secure five-game lead for the top spot in the Western Conference, while Dallas (50-27), Denver (50-27), Utah (50-27) and Phoenix (50-27) are fighting among themselves -- but that doesn't mean the Lakers should feel safe. The team has lost three of its last four games and struggled to build the momentum it hoped had been established last month. And for a team currently struggling to find a rhythm, any team that's playing its best basketball -- such as San Antonio -- is the last opponent the Lakers would want to face.Jackson jokingly suggested the Lakers would solve that issue if it had "one single opponent for seven games." And the Lakers' track record this season against San Antonio can surely validate that.
In their 101-89 victory Feb. 9 over San Antonio, the Lakers overcame the absences of Bryant (sprained left ankle) and Andrew Bynum (bruised right hip) by featuring team balance, including five players scoring in double figures. In the team's 92-83 victory last week against the Spurs, the Lakers defense limited San Antonio, holding Tim Duncan to six points on 2 of 11 shooting and George Hill to one second-half point after he exploded for 20 first-half points.
But the Lakers' performances against San Antonio also reveal why it would be most challenging to meet in the postseason. In a 105-85 loss on Jan. 12 to the Spurs, the Lakers committed 14 turnovers, allowed the Spurs to shoot 57.3% and yielded at least 100 points for the ninth time in 12 games. Defense was also an issue in the team's most recent loss, with the team continuing to get beat on the pick-and-roll and Duncan owning the paint.
Because of the Lakers' inconsistency and the team's playoff familiarity with San Antonio, the series would inevitably bring many peaks and valleys. I argued the Lakers would survive a long series against San Antonio simply because of the Spurs' age. But it's entirely plausible for San Antonio to match wits with the Lakers, too. Even if the Lakers survive a long series against the Spurs, having to expend that much energy for a first-round opponent would perhaps be the most consequential part of it all.
That is, unless the Lakers do indeed fall in the first round. I can only imagine what chaos would ensue after that. All I know is I'd be prepared to live under martial law.
-- Mark Medina
Photo: Lakers center Pau Gasol, who had a season-high 32 points, gets hammered by Spurs forward Matt Bonner and Malik Hairston in the third quarter Sunday. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times