Avoiding the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round represents a win in itself, especially without the services of Kobe Bryant to counteract the Westbrook-Durant scoring storm. The Lakers spent the past few seasons prior to last year witnessing the growth of the since arrived Thunder, as well as butting heads with steady success of the San Antonio Spurs. An “ideal-ER” match up when considering the other potential first round match up for the Lakers as they finally gain their footing.
The offense now runs through the pivot, a prospect that D’Antoni claimed as “boring” when initially handed the reigns of this high profile, talent-laden lineup. He chose to ride on the shoulders of old faithful, Kobe Bryant, but must trust his frontcourt to guide the Lakers beyond San Antonio.
Pau and Dwight present an advantageous proposition for D’Antoni. Prone to watching Pop and his Spurs bask, instead of wilt in the glare of his old Suns teams, he can avenge his initial and final first round losses in Phoenix. He and Nash would come close, but eventually fall to Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili. Yet, Nash remains day-to-day, but feels more confident that Sunday will be that day he returns, which will help both his team and his coach. On the other side, the acquisition of Tracy McGrady gives the Spurs a mysterious advantage, the mystery remains as to how he will perform no matter how many cookies Pop feeds him.
Regardless, MDA has the leg up this time around. As Parker and Ginobili battle injuries, his two bigs, slowed early by their own maladies, look primed as the playoffs commence. The Lakers and their coach must remain vigilant in their dominance of the paint. Even though Duncan hasn’t seemed to miss a beat in his 16th season, posting 17 points and almost 10 rebounds a night, he doesn’t log the same minutes or play with the same tag team partner he had in the Admiral back in the day. Granted, Pop shaved a minute here and there for Timmy for the post season. But, Timmy cannot guard both Pau and Dwight.
Tiago Splitter achieves way above his perceived potential, providing 10 points and just above 6 rebounds per game, and can stay between the Lakers and the basket on D. He will most likely play one game above his averages, but keeping him and DaJuan Blair off of the boards is more important. Matt Bonner will stretch the defense, but attacking him in the paint often balances out his impact. Due to his injury, Boris Diaw cannot pull Pau or Dwight away from the rim on defense.
The lack of depth of Spurs’ bigs fortunately coincides with the focus of the Lakers’ attack, which is exactly how they managed to beat them 91-86 on April 14th. Despite Pau missing 14 of his 17 shots, he led the team in attempts. His lack of aptitude at the offensive end didn’t deter him from collecting 16 boards and 3 blocks. Blake put up 16 shots due to a wide range of choices now that the ball begins inside and moves out. Dwight shot 15 times, the least amount of the Lakers’ Big Three-Point-O, with Blake as the 3rd guard in this configuration. But, he also went to the line 17 times, a clear indication as to the wealth of his touches. Dwight also provided 17 boards and 3 blocks, further proof of the big man precept that touches positively impacts overall performance.
That…and fighting into the playoffs for a “favorable-ER” opponent.
Will the Lakers demolish the Spurs? No. That really doesn’t happen to San Antonio at this time of year. Since Pop’s first full season at the helm in 1999, the Spurs post a 118-72 record, or 62%. His teams have bested LA in 1999 and 2003 The Lakers, however, post a 34-18 playoff record all-time, or 65%, against the Spurs, and have never lost them in a first round series.
Will Tony Parker go 1-10 again versus the Lakers? Not likely since the first two games are in Texas. If Blake can continue to hit open shots and if Nash does make his return to do the same, then they, coupled with defensive minutes here and there for Morris and Goudelock, can at least counteract his production.
Will the Lakers win the series? They can if they stick to the low post game plan. But, Pop will, like all great post-seasoned coaches, take away typical passes into the post, so the Lakers will require a bit of creativity. The pick and roll between Pau and Dwight at the free throw line shows incredible promise. Pau’s versatility with the rock is the key. If the Spurs double down early on post catches, then the Lakers will have to counter by initiating their offense from the high post. As the Spurs bring a defender to interrupt that action, then the Lakers will need to move the ball faster, dropping it into the post and immediately rotating it around the perimeter to the opposite post.
If the Lakers can efficiently keep the ball in the hands of their bigs, they can steal Game 1 and settle this in 6. It is likely that the Spurs will hold serve at home and Game 5 will determine the outcome, either a Lakers victory or an early exit.