Lakers at Spurs: What to watch

On several occasions, I've described this game as the start of a quasi-playoff series housed inside the regular season. Between today and April 20, the Lakers and Spurs play three times, which creates familiarity and tension while allowing coaches to make adjustments. If not a true postseason vibe, the atmosphere could be similar. In the meantime, these games could be very instructive towards gauging how far the Lakers might travel in the playoffs. The Spurs have quietly (is there any other way for this franchise?) established themselves as one of the NBA's best this season, and recently had an 11-game winning streak snapped by Gregg Popovich's decision to prioritize his star trio's health and energy ahead of the team's record.

Even with Kobe Bryant suited up, this game would represent a mighty challenge. Without him, the task becomes even more difficult, and the takeaways grow potentially fuzzier in the event of a loss. But should the purple and gold pull the upset or even keep the game close, that could equal the Lakers perhaps on more solid footing than the last few weeks might indicate. At the very least, maybe a strong rally as the postseason nears is possible.

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Ginobli is one of many dudes who can light it up for San Antonio.

For more insight into the Spurs, we sparked up an IM conversation with Andrew McNeill from the True Hoop network's 48 Minutes of Hell blog. Below is a transcript of the conversation.

Andy Kamenetzky: For Lakers fans who haven't seen much of San Antonio this season, why have they been so successful?

Andrew McNeill: The offense is elite. The Spurs are still a great 3-point shooting team, but they can score points in a variety of ways. Against the Jazz Sunday night, the Spurs shot 27% from 3, but still scored 114 points. And the defensive rebounding is bettee. They're still not a great defensive team, but limiting teams to just one shot makes them a little better.

AK: Why hasn't San Antonio been better defensively?

AM: The Spurs still struggle defending the pick-and-roll/pop. While the Spurs are a smart defensive team and rotate better than most, the lack of foot speed from the big man leaves them open to teams with bigs that can knock down 18-footers. However, the post defense has been improved for three reasons: (1) more minutes for Tiago Splitter, (2) the addition of Boris Diaw and (3) Matt Bonner... somehow.

I'm curious, with all the change both teams have undergone since last season, what matchup are you most interested in?

Brian Kamenetzky: With Ramon Sessions, the Lakers have the ability not just to run pick-and-roll effectively, but a guard that must be respected for his penetration and ability to finish at the rim. That means Tony Parker, who previously didn't have much of a role defensively against the Derek Fisher types the Lakers once relied on (namely Derek Fisher), now have real responsibility. The bigs not only have to help and recover, but try and force Sessions higher on the floor to slow his attack. With Gasol's ability to pass, the Lakers have lots of sets to expand P-and-R possibilities.

AK: For me, it's the battle of the benches. Or more accurately, how small a margin of defeat the Lakers can cobble together. It would be surprising if the Lakers reserves matched the Spurs' production, given the presences of Manu Ginobli, Stephen Jackson, Splitter and Gary Neal. But they also can't get buried by one of the NBA's most prolific bench units. That time on the court must be productive to avoid an enormous pressure placed on the starters.

AM: How is the Mike Brown tenure so far?

AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy

More time and success will be required before Brown gains Pop's gravitas.

BK: My belief about coaches is there are a small handful of truly elite guys who mean extra wins for their teams. Popovich obviously qualifies. There are a couple at the other end of the spectrum who are so bad, they cost their team wins. Everyone else falls somewhere in the middle. I think Brown falls at the higher end of those guys. He's prepared, works very hard, and I think players respect the time he puts in. He also took over an already-difficult gig coaching the Lakers under what are probably the worst possible circumstances. Lockout. No contact with players. No time to practice, while replacing arguably the most successful coach in the history of team sports. The CP3 debacle. And so on.

But all that said, I don't know how well he's making an imprint. The defense, supposedly his calling card, is slipping big time. His rotations have been inconsistent, and I've never had the sense the team has truly bought in to what he's selling.

AK: What's interesting is how Brown learned under Pop and has taken the exact opposite approach to limiting his stars' minutes. How have Spurs fans generally reacted to Pop's long-view approach?

AM: There's a small subset of Spurs fans who don't like Pop and think he's only ridden Tim Duncan's coattails to this success. We don't talk about those people. But everybody else understands that the Spurs are old and any chance San Antonio has at another title rests on Duncan, Parker and Ginobili being completely healthy in the playoffs. Some blowhard columnists have suggested the league fine Pop for these situations, but Pop answers only to Spurs owner Peter Holt and the ownership, and I'm willing to bet that Holt would take any hit from the league office for Pop.

AK: So who wins the game?

AM: In San Antonio? Without Kobe? The big three on a couple of days rest? Spurs by 11.

AK: The Spurs. Without Kobe, the odds favor the Lakers even less, but the Lakers just haven't been particularly sharp of late no matter who suits up. I think the Lakers will play hard, but lose by 9.

BK: Should I, in the interests of symmetry, say Spurs by 10? I definitely think San Antonio is the better team, and without Kobe, there's no way for the Lakers exploit their advantages effectively. With Kobe, it's a different story, one hopefully told in the next two games.