San Antonio, for the second straight series, goes home down 0-2 thanks to poor offensive basketball from both its stars and role players. And while there is no question that the role players must start shooting better for the Spurs to have any chance against this terrific Lakers team, their chances to win begin and end with the success of their three headed monster. But right now, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan are getting their clocks cleaned. However, as we've seen before, the Spurs crowd and brain trust can do wonders for the psyche of the three stars.
Parker's problems begin with his inability to hit open midrange and 3-point shots. Against a defense that has players as long as Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol, hitting perimeter shots is important, because overpenetration leads to blocked shots or contested shots that are tough to finish. As those guys are forced up the floor to contest shots from the perimeter, the lanes to the rim will open up. But the problem is, none of the Spurs are hitting. If Parker starts making shots then their entire offense can begin to run more smoothly.
No shot was bigger, or more indicative of the night, than the shot Parker got with a minute to play in the second quarter. The Lakers had just forged a four-point lead when Parker had the ball in the corner with no one near him. Make it and the lead shrinks to one and the Spurs have a chance to bounce into the locker room excited to be so close after being outplayed. But Parker didn't just miss, he missed by two feet, as the ball never came close to hitting the rim.
The Lakers hit a 3-point shot 16 seconds later to go up seven, and the Spurs never got closer than that. Good shooting is contagious, just as bad shooting is. That shot was just one of 17 misses on the night (6-23) from 3. If the Spurs are to get back into the series, then their perimeter shots must start falling and sometimes it just takes one big shot to get everybody rolling.
The Lakers are playing good defense on ball screens. They're avoiding the strong hedge, which allows Parker to split the screen, which forces him to the sideline and baseline. The fact that Gasol, Odom and Ronny Turiaf can all slide their feet effectively has bothered Parker some, limiting his ability to just turn the corner and get to the rim. It's an aspect of the Lakers' defense that goes unnoticed by most fans, but it's a huge key to their overall effectiveness. "Long and nimble" are often the adjectives used to describe effective post defenders on the perimeter, and the Lakers have three guys like that.
I'd expect the Spurs to use more center-cut ball screens in Game 3, the flat variety where the screener can adjust his angle quickly just before Parker starts his attack. This should help get Parker into the lane, or force more help from the wing defenders, which will open up their shooters. Parker must resist the urge to go all the way to the rim if a shot-blocker awaits, and mix in some pull-up jump shots.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has seen Parker most effective in open space this series, often curling around screens and then attacking the post player. It's a lot different than what he did against the Suns and Hornets, and it shows his talent to be more than just a pick-and-roll guy. We should see more of these actions going forward, with a flat ball screen coming if he does not have a driving angle off the catch.
Manu's troubles are less strategy related and more difficult to figure. He had 51 points and made 10-20 three pointers in the Spurs' final two wins against the Hornets, but he's been simply awful in the first two games in L.A. (17 total points, 5-21 from the field, and 2-10 from 3). Perhaps the move to bring him off the bench has been part of the issue, so seeing him start in Game 3 would not be a surprise. And he's being marked by Vladimir Radmanovic, who's been excellent as a roamer on defense when defending Bruce Bowen or Michael Finley. He's not roaming away from Ginobili, but he's not chasing him hard either. Ginobili is just missing open shots and taking far too many at that. We're seeing very little slashing from him, maybe due to the Lakers' shot-blockers. But taking only five free throws in two games, after averaging 5.9 per game during the season, is a subject that Popovich will surely address. If Ginobili is on the attack, in transition and in half-court sets, the Spurs' offense is in gear.
One other big area for the Spurs to address is their play at the other post position next to Duncan. Fabricio Oberto and Robert Horry got the majority of the minutes, but combined for 2-12 shooting. Horry missed wide open shots, while Oberto finished weakly inside and missed some easy buckets. Their poor play allows their defenders to offer extra help on Duncan and Parker inside. If they can make the Lakers pay for "cheating," then their stars can find more open looks. So Oberto should finish with strength, and get the bucket or foul, and Horry (or Kurt Thomas) must take his time and knock down the open jumper.
The Lakers are playing great basketball, and have outscored the Spurs by a phenomenal 54 points in the last five and a half quarters. They are getting energy from their bench, confident play from their role players, and magnificence from the league MVP. Kobe Bryant needed to score 25 second half points to pull out a win in Game 1, but only needed to score seven straight to open the second half of Game 2 to pad the lead and get the Lakers coasting to a win. He's ready to do whatever it takes to get to the Finals.
Should the Spurs shoot better, as we expect they will, then the Lakers won't want to just depend on Bryant's heroics to keep them in the game (though it's a great blessing to have). Each player must expect to make big contributions, knowing how difficult it will be to beat the Spurs in San Antonio. Winning in Utah is impressive, but the Spurs have been dynamite at home and will be playing with incredible passion and pride. This lines up as a game with the potential to be thrilling, as the Lakers hope to kill any feeling the Spurs have that this will be their season to repeat.
PREDICTION: Spurs win Game 3
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for ESPN.com and the executive director of the Pro Training Center at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for NBA and college players. To e-mail him, click here.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.