Hopefully, everyone's found the eggs hidden in the backyard and is settling in for a Lakers and Spurs Easter Sunday matchup. It's always a treat when these squads face off, and adding another wrinkle, we could be watching a preview of the Lakers' first round matchup in the playoffs. With that in mind, here are a few things worth keeping an eye on during the game.
-I've often noticed Tim Duncan tends to be bothered more by defenders of length rather than bulk. Pau Gasol has spent much of his career derided as a willowy wisp of a big man. He didn't really even lift weights until he was shipped to L.A. for Kwame Brown (ironically, the strongest Laker on the roster at the time).
Well, guess what? Pau's not only evolved into a considerably better one-on-one defender than advertised in Memphis, but he's done very well bodying The Big Fundamental over the last few seasons in L.A. Even more promising, he did a very good job in their most recent meeting on March 24. Gasol may have been limited to just 10 points on 11 shots, but that was Kobe's "81" compared to TD. The same 11 shots, but just two of them fell, leaving Duncan with a scant six points. Manu Ginobili may be the Spurs' engine, but without a solid body, a car's horsepower is ultimately pretty worthless. Limit Duncan and the auto's performance will follow suit.
-Speaking of Manu, Ron Artest did a terrific job hounding the Argentinian in spots during the pivotal second half.I say "in spots" not to imply Artest's work was spotty, but rather because Artest had a successful defensive impact against several Spurs during the game. Stopping George Hill's penetration. Stripping Roger Mason Jr. He even induced Duncan into a turnover under the basket, a new Laker possession converted into a Kobe Bryant three-pointer.
This performance came directly after several writers, most notably the Los Angeles Times' Bill Plaschke, criticized Artest's fit compared to Trevor Ariza's. To the best of my knowledge, there are no fresh Artest-Ariza articles hitting the nets today, but if you're a Laker fan and happen to see Artest on the way to Staples, tell him he's getting crushed by the media. That seems to help the cause.
-The Kobe Bryant Extension era is officially underway, but as I noted during our postgame report, he didn't ring in this pivotal moment with a particularly Mamba-esque performance. Five-of-23 shooting, misses that began as just clean looks refusing to fall and ended as often wild and forced. But here's the thing. Kobe doesn't often have two bad games in a row, much less two bad nationally televised games in a row. In their last meeting, Kobe racked 24 points on 11-of-16 shooting. Even Spurs blogger Timothy Varner of 48 Minutes of Helladmitted Keith Bogans isn't capable of doing much to slow 24. I'm banking on a good afternoon for Bryant.
-Unless he wake up feeling awful from yesterday's practice, Luke Walton plans to suit up after being shelved since February 10 with a pinched nerve in his back. I don't see him playing more than 10-ish minutes, but they could be 10 purposeful ones. The Lakers' second unit has been, to put it kindly, erratic all season, and Lamar Odom having to cover for Andrew Bynum in the starting five hasn't helped matters. Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown are more dynamic and potentially explosive players than Walton, but neither is as good at running the offense, much less creating for others. Hopefully, Walton taking the reigns will keep everyone on the same page and create more productive bench stints.
-Interesting little coincidental tidbit, courtesy of Elias Sports Bureau. Phil Jackson has a 28-27 (.509) career record against the Spurs during the regular season, the lowest career winning percentage Jackson has recorded against any team he has faced at least 20 times in his career. Gregg Popovich has a 25-25 (.500) career record against the Lakers during the regular season, which ties for the lowest career winning percentage against any team (13-13 vs. Milwaukee).
In related news, Jackson once had a secretary named "Popovich" and Popovich had a secretary named "Jackson."