Five things to watch in Lakers-Spurs matchup
1. Will the Lakers' feisty practice translate into Tuesday's game against San Antonio? It's at least a good sign the team's taking steps to heal the wounds left from its 96-80 loss Christmas Day to the Miami Heat. But it's unclear if a competitive practice consisting of the reserves beating the starters, Ron Artest getting a cut under his right eye and Kobe Bryant playing aggressively will make any difference Tuesday when the Lakers play at San Antonio. The Lakers had reported a solid practice two days after their double-digit loss to Milwaukee because of the two-hour length and the fact everyone practiced together. But that meant very little come Christmas Day.
It remains unclear whether a simple practice and a agitated Bryant will simply cause the Lakers (21-9) to perform a complete 180-degree turn against the San Antonio Spurs (26-4). While it's tempting to view this game as a must-win considering the Lakers' poor effort their past two games and the Spurs have a five-game lead over the Lakers in the Western Conference standings, it's more important to see if the Lakers' "feisty practice" leads to better habits. It's also necessary for the Lakers to be aware that despite their recent shortcomings, opponents still view them as the defending champions. In turn, they'll play them that way. Despite owning the top spot in the West, the Spurs still consider the Lakers the team to beat. The Spurs also begin a five-game stretch where they play teams with winning records, including Dallas, Oklahoma City, New York and Boston. No doubt, San Antonio will want to begin that effort on a good note.
"This is a team that is always a tough opponent for us," Lakers forward Lamar Odom said. "They gave us a fight. It's always a tough place to go in. They're well coached and they play basketball the right way. They make you beat them. When you see their record, it speaks for itself."
2. How will the Lakers stop the Spurs' high octane offense? San Antonio's usual foundation rested through a deliberate offense mostly based on setting up Spurs forward Tim Duncan in the post. With San Antonio failing to make the Western Conference Finals for two consecutive seasons, Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich has changed the team to play at a more up tempo pace, resulting in posting a fourth-best 106.23 points per game. The Spurs are capable of beating opponents offensively in many ways. Guards Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have led the team with 19.5 and 17.7 points per game respectively by playing the open court. There's several areas in which San Antonio forward Richard Jefferson has made improvements thanks to more devoted offseason work. Matt Bonner has led the league in three-point shooting. And Duncan has remained a significant part of the offense by taking a backseat, going through his lowest career scoring average (13.9) and minutes (29 a game) in favor of a facilitating role.
The Spurs are also winning close games, with 15 of their 24 victories coming within single digits.
"They're managing to beat teams a lot of it last minute, last two minutes of games and sometimes not playing well for a while and then coming up and having a really good finish in games," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson. "They're doing something special and they have to understand what it is."
The challenge for the Lakers involves having enough defensive discipline, an area the team's consistently lacked all season. The return of Andrew Bynum has sharped the Lakers' lane presence and given the team more length, but the Lakers still remain in flux with defending screen-and-rolls and close outs.
"They're tough," Odom said of San Antonio. "They know what to expect out of each other. They know how to play with each other. They play well off each other. They're disciplined offensively and defensively. They stick their guns. They do the same thing over and over again. They make it work."
3. Can the Lakers find weaknesses against San Antonio's defense?
For how impressive the Spurs are playing, Jackson downplayed San Antonio's hot start, whose 24-3 record ties the 95-96 Chicago Bulls team for the league's second-best start through 27 games. Only the 2008-09 Boston Celtics, the 1969-70 New York Knicks, and the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers fared better, each beginning with 25-2 marks. But Jackson made it clear the Bulls' impressive start was by no means a sign that it laid a foundation for what became a 72-win championship season.
"When it gets to 45-6 or something in that degree, you start looking at them," Jackson said. "But I mean we're still early yet to start making too many noises about it. It's an early start and they're playing well and that's the way ballgames go."
Jackson isn't the only one feeling that way. NBA.com's David Aldridge reports in great detail why Popovich believes the Spurs should feel far from comfortable.
"If our players look at it as a cushion, just mentally, that can become a quagmire," Popovich told Aldridge. "You think you're in such good shape, subconsciously your energy level drops or your concentration drops, which leads to problems with execution and that sort of thing. I don't want to look at that at all. I want to more look at it as we haven't accomplished anything, because it's still the regular season, and we're still such an average-at-best defensive team."
Popovich isn't just showcasing his demanding leadership. The statistics show San Antonio ranks 16th in total defense (allowing 98.10 points per game) and 17th in shooting percentage allowed (conceding to opponents a 47.1% clip from the field). Spurs guard George Hill also might be limited against the Lakers because of a sprained right big toe that kept him sidelined for four games. He played 16 minutes in San Antonio's 94-80 victory Sunday over the Washington Wizards, but Poppovich told reporters he may play him no more than 20 minutes.
Why this matters to the Lakers? Hill has had the most success (relatively speaking) in limiting Kobe Bryant, who's coming off a six of 16 performance against Miami and is ready to take out his anger out on an opponent. But the offense hinges more than on just Bryant, with the Lakers lacking several other qualities against Miami, including ball movement, Pau Gasol and bench production.
4. Will Gasol bounce back?
An eight of 17 clip against Miami appears a modest. A zero of seven first-quarter mark appears terrible. But it's not so much the statistics that's ailed Gasol lately. It's his lack of hustle on defense, his motionless on offense and his continual fatigue. The latter factor seemed somewhat understandable when Bynum was out of the lineup, although it was something he should've been able to absorb since he had time off this summer to rest his hamstring injuries and catch up on rest. But it's troublesome that Gasol's been listless for much of this past month. For better or worse, he'll be a key factor in determining Duncan's role in the offense and if the Lakers can restore fluidity in the post.
5. Will Ron Artest play in the fourth quarter?
After playing under 24 minutes for the fourth consecutive game, Artest made it clear after Monday's practice he should be in the game come crunchtime.
"From an offensive standpoint, I was going pretty well, almost having a semi-breakout game," he said of his performance against Miami, despite getting in early foul trouble, focusing on angering LeBron James than guarding him, while also scoring eight points in 21 minutes. "I felt good in the last couple games. It's just unfortunate I'm not able to work my way off the bench at crucial times. I've just got to continue to work out like I do, stay sharp."
Artest has struggled this season, averaging only 7.6 points on 39% shooting and failing to have a signature defensive performance through 30 games. But it'll be interesting to see if his acknowledged frustration will spur dialogue between Jackson and Artest, prompt Artest to improve his flow in the triangle or just lead to more frustration.
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Photo: Lakers' Kobe Bryant is defended by Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs during the fourth quarter in a 2008-09 regular season game. Bryant led the Lakers with 29 points and 10 assists. Credit: Eric Gay / Associated Press
Photo: Lakers' Pau Gasol defends Spurs guard Manu Ginobili during the first quarter of a 2008-09 regular season game in San Antonio. Ginobili led the Spurs in scoring with 27 points. Credit: Eric Gay / Associated Press.
Photo: Lakers' Pau Gasol, left, and center Andrew Bynum compete for a rebound with San Antonio Spurs' Tim Duncan during the second quarter of a 2008-9 regular season game. Credit: Eric Gay / Associated Press