Sizing up whether San Antonio is the Lakers' main threat in the West
Why the Spurs could be the Lakers' main threat in the West: The Spurs (26-4) are off to a terrific start, so much so that their 24-3 mark through 27 games ties the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' record as the second-best start in NBA history at that point. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson makes a good point that it's "still early yet to start making too many noises about it, considering the league's not even at the halfway point of the season." But unlike other teams, the Spurs have the experience and maturity that will keep early-season success from blinding them to the pitfalls that happen later in the season. San Antonio has always had a businesslike, no-nonsense attitude, and its fast-paced offense has come because players were willing to adjust their roles. The fact that Spurs forward Tim Duncan has willingly taken a back seat in his production (a career scoring average of 13.9 points per game) and minutes (29 per contest) for a facilitating role exemplifies the Spurs' team-first mentality and will likely ensure better long-term health.
The Spurs also likely won't be one of those teams that flame out in March and April after a soaring regular-season beginning. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich shares a similar quality with Jackson: knowing how to properly pace a team so that it's at its peak once postseason play hits. The Spurs also have great familiarity with the Lakers, and each team has paid particular attention to the other's progress, what with the Lakers winning four NBA championships and San Antonio winning three in the last decade. Though that can work in the Lakers' favor, it could also work for Spurs, given their knowledge of how difficult it is to beat the L.A. in a seven-game series. The Lakers have plenty of time to cut into San Antonio's five-game cushion in the Western Conference, but the Spurs' talent, experience and current home record (17-2) shows it's significant that the Lakers hold home-court advantage over their rivals.
Why they might not be: Even though the Spurs are very familiar with the Lakers in the postseason, the defending champions have won four of the five playoff series this decade. San Antonio would no doubt give the Lakers a good effort, but that can only go so far in a six- or seven-game series. Despite San Antonio's early-season success, Popovich has genuine concern regarding the team's defensive discipline. The Spurs are ranked 16th in total defense (98.10 points per game) and 17th in shooting percentage allowed (conceding to opponents a 47.1% clip from the field)), two statistics that the Lakers would surely excel in during the postseason. The Lakers may have experienced a severe drop-off in total offense from November to December (108.3 to 98.4 points per game), but that shouldn't become an issue once postseason play begins.
The Spurs and the Lakers also share a common concern in wanting to stay healthy, because most of each team's roster makeup consists of players in their 30s. That variable is something that can't be predicted until the time comes, an issue that might doom the Lakers regardless of who they play. Should San Antonio struggle in that respect, no doubt that will give the Lakers an edge in a series that always ends up being a chess match.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: San Antonio's Manu Ginobili scored 14 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter to help the Spurs beat the Timberwolves in overtime Wednesday night. Credit: Jim Mone / Associated Press