The Lakers beat the Spurs in three of their four meetings this season, but don't assume too much from those results. The first three games -- all won by L.A. -- were played before mid-December and in one of them, neither Tim Duncan nor Tony Parker played due to injuries.
The early-season Spurs bear little resemblance to the team that hasn't lost since March 23 (at Minnesota) and has won 15 straight games -- including a four-game sweep of the upstart Memphis Grizzlies. The Spurs' record had actually dipped below .500 (9-10) after losing to the Lakers on Dec. 3, but the return to health of Duncan and Parker, the promotion of Hedo Turkoglu to starting two guard -- which resulted in Manu Ginobili's effective sixth-man performance -- and the steady growth in the comfort zone of Rasho Nesterovic have combined to make the Spurs the league's most formidable team.
The most significant game in San Antonio's transformation was its most recent encounter with L.A. when both teams were at full strength. The Spurs held the Lakers to 89 points and a .427 shooting percentage from the field, and they forced 16 turnovers to go with L.A.'s 17 assists.
On offense in that game, the Spurs scored 95 points, shot .432 from the field and had only 10 turnovers. Parker had 29 points, nine assists and only two turnovers. Duncan had an efficient 18-point, 13-rebound, four-assist, two-block game. The Spurs outscored the Lakers 32-20 in the second period and made it stand up. San Antonio has continued to play at that high level since then.
But the Lakers are also on a roll. Characteristic of most successful teams, they've upgraded their play in the playoffs. L.A.'s series-clinching Game 5 win against Houston was a clinic. The Lakers' defense was aggressive and coordinated, their ball handling was precise (resulting in 50-percent shooting) and their offense was in harmony (31 assists against 12 turnovers).
Kobe Bryant was electric, defending, driving, passing, rebounding and scoring. I rate that game as one of Bryant's best NBA performances -- especially since it came after three days in a court of law in Eagle, Colo., and he arrived at Staples Center a mere 15 minutes before game time.
But the question that remains in the minds of most NBA followers: How can the Lakers win four times against a Spurs team that has home-court advantage and appears to have its game together?
The Lakers already have one thing going for them -- they're now relatively healthy at every position. Karl Malone is back and again delivering "beware, take-care" packages to opposing matchups. He has upped his numbers from the regular season (from 13.2 points to 18.0, and 8.7 rebounds to 10.4) and is suddenly finding open looks from the triangle offense. Malone will defend Duncan and must keep TD from having dominant games. That should be a head-to-head battle well worth watching.
The Lakers must make the most of their clear advantage at center, where Shaquille O'Neal is too strong and powerful for Nesterovic. The Spurs are certain to help Rasho with double teams. Shaq, an excellent and willing passer, will find open cutters and shooters and they must complete scoring plays. When Duncan defends him -- as he will for segments of the game -- Shaq must be aggressive to score and try to get TD in foul trouble. On defense, Shaq needs to be as active as he was in the last two games against Houston.
At small forward, coach Phil Jackson has moved Devean George into the starting lineup in place of the struggling Rick Fox. The 6-foot-8 George gives the Lakers size, tough defense and 3-point scoring potential. He'll match up with Turkoglu and must pressure him at the perimeter, then get out and run the floor to keep the Lakers' fastbreak alive.
In the backcourt, Bryant will welcome the defensive challenge that comes from Bruce Bowen, one of the league's top stoppers. Kobe feels that no one player can stop him -- and he's right -- but he needs to maintain a balance between his freelance play and his use of the triangle offense to get high-percentage shots for himself and his teammates. On defense, Kobe and Derek Fisher are Jackson's best options to contain Parker's penetrations. With those matchups, Gary Payton is left to defend Bowen, a reluctant shooter, and to use his off-the-ball skills to disrupt the Spurs' half-court game and force turnovers.
Off the bench, Jackson has the veteran Fisher and Kareem Rush, a good defender with a soft left-handed touch from the edges, to help in the backcourt; and Slava Medvedenko to back up both Shaq and Malone up front. Bryant also gets minutes at small forward. Those are the Lakers' most reliable players. Jackson may want to limit his rotation to include only them.
Whatever lineup Jackson has on the floor, it's imperative that the Lakers defend aggressively for 48 minutes, dominate the boards and then push the ball on every possible transition opportunity. In the four games played in the regular season between the two teams, the Lakers outscored the Spurs 52-24 in fastbreak points. They also had a huge edge in points scored in the paint (198-126).
Coach Gregg Popovich will have the Spurs ready for all of that. He's well aware of his team's strengths and weaknesses. The San Antonio defense -- the best in the league in points allowed and opponents' field-goal percentage -- is the team's constant strength. The Spurs must play their best D and control the Lakers' running game with consistent transition sprints to the backcourt while keeping the ball in sight.
Coach Pop wants to control tempo, take care of the ball, and run the Spurs' offense through Duncan's low-post game. The Lakers hope a combination of Malone, O'Neal and Medvedenko will slow TD's offensive production without double-teaming. But if it doesn't, the Lakers will double aggressively and play the passing lanes and look for turnovers.
This should be a great series, matching the two best teams in the league. Both are well-coached, have great players to lead them and are extremely competitive. It should be the best series in the 2004 playoffs.
The most significant factor for the Lakers to win this series is their team defense. Shaq is the key to that. If he's actively showing that he's involved in screen and rolls, plugging when he's not, rebounding aggressively, blocking shots and intimidating in the paint -- and his teammates cover for him when he's helping them -- the Lakers are half-way home. The rest of the journey depends on coordinated, unselfish execution of the offense.
When the games are close down the stretch, L.A. has the game's best finisher in Bryant. He seldom fails when the ball is in his hands at crunch time.
But after considering all of those points and counterpoints, the series may well be decided at the free-throw line. They're the two worst teams at shooting free throws, with the Lakers ranking 28th and the Spurs last at 29th.
Dr. Jack Ramsay, an NBA analyst for ESPN, coached the Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA championship. A member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, he is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Click here to send a question for Dr. Jack for possible use on ESPNEWS.