Submitted by Jim Hurley on Saturday, April 20, 2013 at 1:00 PM
You don’t often see the networks showcase two teams who aren’t playing at their best in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. But the fascinating storylines surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs have made their first round series must-see TV.
Can the Lakers win without Kobe Bryant? Most fans would have been skeptical of that…until they saw a rejuvenated Dwight Howard and a frisky Pau Gasol lead the Lakers to two key regular season victories after Kobe’s injury. Hey, Dwight Howard at his BEST could take a lot of teams a lot of places…that’s why he was so highly sought after last year.
Is the “Tim Duncan era” finally over for the Spurs? That didn’t seem likely earlier this season, when San Antonio was once again crushing Western Conference foes. But, the team slumped home in a way that has you wondering if the end is near. Manu Ginobili suddenly looks his age. Tony Parker has a tendency to run himself into injuries since he’s taken on a bigger burden. And, the team that lost in the first round two years ago…and fell apart vs. Oklahoma City last year…suddenly looks like the most vulnerable of the power seeds.
You wouldn’t expect the Lakers without Kobe to beat Oklahoma City, the LA Clippers, or Miami. But, THIS San Antonio team might be in trouble.
Let’s run the game through our gauntlet if indicators, keeping in mind that you have to anticipate what the Lakers will look like WITHOUT Kobe on the floor…
WON-LOST RECORDS VS. .500 OR BETTER
San Antonio: 31-17
San Antonio, at full strength, is still a handful during the regular season because Coach Popovich knows how to get the most out of his players. He can win a chess match vs. any unprepared coach. This very smart team knows how to take care of business in situations where brains are rewarded. Keep in mind that they underachieved in recent playoffs because other teams were able to make meaningful adjustments upon repeated viewings. The Lakers struggled all season vs. quality, and probably would continue to do so without Kobe in most situations.
OFFENSIVE EFFICIENCY RANKINGS
San Antonio: #7
None of the Lakers issues this year were on offense. Kobe Bryant drank from the Fountain of Youth and had one of his most effective scoring seasons ever. Of course, he often stopped playing defense entirely in a way that hurt on the other side of the ball. But…on offense…the Lakers were dangerous and this category would have been a wash if Kobe was in uniform.
DEFENSIVE EFFICIENCY RANKINGS
San Antonio: #3
The Lakers were a disappointment in this stat because Howard had a bad back, because Kobe stopped guarding people, and because Gasol’s length was often in street clothes watching the game with fans. The team played well defensively once Kobe left, which provides a possibility that this could get interesting in this series. That being said, San Antonio’s defense was extremely underrated this year. Did YOU have any idea they were #3 in the league on a per-possession basis? San Antonio will still get the nod on this side of the ball even if the Lakers show improvement.
REBOUND RATE RANKINGS
San Antonio: #17
The Lakers have length with Howard and Gasol, and hustle with Metta World Peace. If the team brings the level of energy they showed in their last two regular season games, then they could use this stat to make up for other weaknesses. If the Spurs start to look old and tired, while the Lakers bring enthusiasm and energy…maybe we’ll have a developing story.
San Antonio: #6
You know that Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni loves pace. The problem is…you really don’t maximize the potential of the Lakers bigs by running. We believe it’s the Spurs who will be best served by tempo given the loss of Kobe Bryant. Denver/Golden State has similar stat rankings…and will probably be a very up-tempo series. We don’t believe this Lakers/Spurs series will play to those rankings.
You still have to give the nod to the Spurs because their core of stars have so much playoff experience together. Depth is becoming an issue. The team signed Tracy McGrady! That’s more likely to matter in the second round against the winner of Denver/Golden State. It’s not like the Lakers have any depth!
Favoring Los Angeles: “Nothing to lose” attitude, Dwight Howard finding his legs
Favoring San Antonio: Experience, depth, strategic coaching, a mismatch at the point guard position, home court
That’s still a lot more pointing to the Texans. JIM HURLEY has been working closely with his sources to determine the mindset of both teams entering the series. On paper…we still probably have a Spurs mismatch. The playoffs aren’t played on paper…which is why so many interesting things happen every year.
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Back tomorrow for a NOTEBOOK series assessment of Rockets/Thunder…the final game on the opening weekend card. Then we’ll continue first round coverage through the week chasing the most relevant stories for handicappers. Be sure you’re with us EVERY DAY so you know what’s happening in the NBA Playoffs…and link up with JIM HURLEY’S NETWORK for BIG, JUICY WINNERS!