Sizing up whether Lakers change their approach trailing San Antonio in the Western Conference Standings
If there are any two teams that understand the need to hold a big-picture perspective on the regular season, the Lakers and the Spurs are those teams.
They've shared a rich history this past decade that's proved unmatched. The Lakers won five NBA titles, including a three-peat from 2000 to 2002. The Spurs won three, one in 2003, 2005 and 2007. The Lakers had 114 playoff victories and were the only team this past decade to win at least 65 games in two different regular seasons. The Spurs, meanwhile, were the only franchise to win at least 50 games and make the postseason every year this past decade.
Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, rarely one to compliment other coaches, hands out all the praises to Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, who has the third-best winning per- centage (.677, 776-370) of any coach in NBA history. Lakers guard Kobe Bryant pointed to both teams' front offices ("You have management making great decisions and the right decisions"). And Lakers guard Derek Fisher looks at San Antonio's personnel, ranging from Tony Parker (one of two players along with Steve Nash this season to average at least 15 points at a 50% mark, three rebounds, and five assists), Manu Ginobili (double figures in 44 of 48 games) and Tim Duncan (the Spurs' all-time leading scorer taking a backseat this season to help Parker and Ginobili run the floor).
"They understand how hard it is to stay on top for so many years," Bryant said. "The amount of effort you have to put into it and the amount of focus, work and togetherness, it's tough."
That's why it isn't surprising that Jackson and Fisher tactfully shot down my question wondering if the context for the Lakers' season has changed knowing they're trailing the Spurs by 6½ games for the top spot in the Western Conference standings. I don't necessarily mean when the Lakers (34-15) and Spurs (40-8) square off Thursday night, but for the rest of the season moving forward.
"It's way too early to talk about that," Jackson said. "You can talk about that at the end of March."
"Not at a regular-season game at this point," Fisher said. "They're far enough ahead of the pack where winning games still matters and it's important, but there isn't an eight-game window at the line tomorrow."
But the Lakers have shown signs that suggest otherwise.
Prior to Wednesday's practice, Fisher shared that the team discussed its 19-7 home record and how it needs to improve considering the mark already matches last season's home-loss record (34-7). About a month ago, Jackson began ramping up his practice sessions, including longer practice times and having Bryant change his routine from treatment, weight-lifting and shooting to joining the team in conditioning drills. He scaled back his practice time since last week, but the reasoning became clear. At that point, the Lakers ranked fourth in the West with a 23-11 record, trailing San Antonio for the top spot in the Western Conference and also falling behind Dallas (25-8) and Utah (24-11) by 2½ games and a ½-game, respectively, Jackson reached a tipping point in wanting to rectify the damage before the Lakers fall any further in the standings.
"The idea is to get them through the season in the best possible shape in the best possible placing in the conference," Jackson said. "But we don't have a lot of room to make things up. We have a home schedule right now and we've lost games on our home floor. We have to make hay right now when we can. It's important for us to finish in a position where we at least have home court advantage ... in the first round of the playoffs, for sure. Those things are important for us and we understand that."
Much has changed since then. A season-ending injury to Caron Butler and an injury to Dirk Nowitzki contributed to the Mavericks (34-15) dropping to third place and trailing the Lakers by one game. The Jazz's (29-11) five-game losing streak this month plunged them to seventh place overall. But one thing hasn't changed. The Spurs still maintain a 6½ game lead as they are off to their best record in franchise history through 48 games.
"They're very consistent," Jackson said.
That puts the onus on the Lakers, diminishing the argument further that the Lakers can wait until the end of the season or the playoffs to dial it up. Sure there are exceptions. The Spurs lost to Portland on Tuesday as the Lakers beat Houston. Both teams are only an injury away from changing course. And the Spurs are in the middle of their nine-game Rodeo Trip that entails stops at Sacramento, Detroit, Toronto, Philadelphia, Washington, New Jersey and Chicago, an itinerary that totals 8,965 miles and a whole lot of fatigue.
But both teams are well aware of needing to pace themselves, leading to further questions if the Spurs are as vulnerable to falling through a rough patch as other teams. For now, at least, the Lakers aren't worried.
"I don't know if I ever view them differently based on their record, wins or losses," Fisher said. "Regardless of our win-loss record or their win-loss record, when you play the Spurs, you know what kind of game you're in for. They're going to play tough, hard-core defense. They're going to share the ball. They're going to execute on offense. They're going to put the ball in the hands of their best players to make the decisions. That's something that hasn't changed for years."
-- Mark Medina
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