While the Eastern Conference Finals feature the two teams with the most regular-season wins in the NBA and the two teams with the best point differentials, the Western Conference finalists have history on their sides. Because the Los Angeles Lakers had yet to advance past the opening round in the post-Shaquille O'Neal era before this season, it's easy to forget just how dominant the Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs have been in the Western Conference and the NBA in general over the last decade. Whoever wins, this will be the ninth time in the last 10 years one of them has represented the West in the NBA Finals, and they've combined to win seven NBA championships in that span.
Along the way, the Lakers and Spurs have seen plenty of each other. They squared off four straight postseasons, 2001-04, and every time the winner of this series (the Lakers every year but 2003) went on to win the West. In their two most recent matchups, Robert Horry proved decisive--but not in the way you might expect from a player known as "Big Shot Rob." In 2003, Horry averaged 4.3 points in 30 minutes per game for the Lakers, shooting 26.2% from the field and 0-for-three-point range as the Spurs won in six games. The following year, Horry was in San Antonio and shot 23.5%, albeit in a more limited role off the bench, as the Lakers won in six.
While the Spurs still feature five players from that matchup, including four starters and Horry, the Lakers have only three players left from their 2004 squad: Bryant, Derek Fisher and then-rookie Luke Walton, who played 13 minutes total. Still, the history between these teams and the berth in the NBA Finals on the line figures to make this a fascinating series.
WHEN THE LAKERS HAVE THE BALL
Lakers Offensive Rating: 114.9 (3rd NBA) Regular Season; 117.7 (1st) Playoffs
Spurs Defensive Rating: 103.6 (3rd) Regular Season; 107.8 (4th) Playoffs
Strength against strength. When Pau Gasol has been healthy, the Lakers have had the best offense in the NBA this season. That includes the playoffs thus far; while the Lakers have faced a relatively weak pair of defenses in Denver and Utah, they have scored nearly four more points per 100 possessions than any other team has. (Surprisingly, Orlando rates second at 113.8.)
The Lakers have gotten balanced, efficient production on offense. Of their six leading playoff scorers (starters Fisher, Bryant, Gasol and Lamar Odom and reserves Walton and Sasha Vujacic), the lowest True Shooting Percentage in the group is Odom's 57.6% mark, which is still outstanding. The Lakers are shooting a remarkable 48.7% from the field in the postseason and nearly 40% from beyond the arc.
The Los Angeles offense has proven less dependent upon assists during the playoffs, but the team has still gotten excellent ball movement. Five Lakers players have averaged at least 2.5 assists per game, with Gasol averaging 4.5 a night out of the post. Gasol's willingness to pass and ability to make the correct pass makes him extremely difficult to double-team, particularly when the Lakers are spacing well within their triangle offense.
The Lakers still get in trouble at times when Bryant dominates the basketball, most clearly visible in Game Four at Utah. However, his ability to take over a ballgame down the stretch, combined with the shooters the Lakers can put around him, makes their offense difficult to stop in late-game situations.
If anyone can stop the Lakers, it's the Spurs. San Antonio's defense may not quite be as formidable as it was a couple of years ago, with the Spurs' veterans losing a half a step, but the team is so well coached and so focused on the defensive end as to overcome those shortcomings. That was most evident during Game Seven against New Orleans, when the Spurs took away virtually everything New Orleans wanted to do. Over the course of the season, the Hornets scored 109.1 points per 100 possessions--down from a 119.6 Offensive Rating in their first-round win over Dallas.
After putting New Orleans forward Peja Stojakovic in a deep freeze over the last five games of the semifinals series, defensive stopper Bruce Bowen now turns his attention to Bryant. During the regular season, Bryant averaged 24.3 points per game against the Spurs, his third-lowest total against any Western Conference opponents. The disciplined San Antonio defenders won't put Bryant at the line as frequently as the Nuggets and Jazz did in the first two rounds. His 13.4 free-throw attempts per game so far in the playoffs lead all players. Nobody can shut Bryant down, but if the Spurs make him a jumpshooter and keep him out of the paint and off the line, they can contain him.
Up front, presumably the Spurs would prefer to avoid having Tim Duncan defend Gasol because of the possibility of foul trouble. Still, with Lamar Odom alongside Gasol, the Spurs can't entirely hide Duncan. Odom's versatility allows the Lakers to run big-big pick-and-rolls. Those can be switched, but big men rarely have experience defending on the ball in the pick-and-roll. Duncan is agile enough to handle it, but it might take a game or two for the Spurs to get comfortable defending that action, giving the Lakers an early edge.
In the post, that leaves Fabricio Oberto and Kurt Thomas on Gasol. Oberto did a good job of harassing David West, and their physical style could cause problems. Gasol handled the matchup with the physical Jazz well, but Utah could have done more to create contact and throw Gasol off his game. Thomas is a good enough post defender that the Spurs won't likely feel they have to double Gasol, at least at first. The matchup with the less-athletic Oberto should be more favorable for the Lakers.
WHEN THE SPURS HAVE THE BALL
Spurs Offensive Rating: 109.1 (13th) Regular Season; 108.4 (9th) Playoffs
Lakers Defensive Rating: 107.1 (7th) Regular Season; 111.1 (11th) Playoffs
Whichever team loses this matchup will probably be able to point to this end of the floor as the explanation. The Lakers were much better on defense than the Spurs on offense during the regular season, but both figures were skewed. San Antonio's offense took a major hit during the stretch Tony Parker missed due to injury, and the Lakers were a better defensive team (though worse on offense) with Andrew Bynum at center instead of Gasol. Despite the small sample and the vagaries of their matchups, I think the playoff numbers tell a more accurate tale--these teams are close to even when the Spurs have the ball.
Not only do the Spurs have the benefit of a healthy Parker in the postseason, they've been able to ramp up the minutes for both Duncan and Parker. They are averaging 38.8 minutes in the playoffs, up from 34.0 (Duncan) and 33.5 (Parker) in the regular season. With at least one of them on the floor at all times and all three of them playing together more than ever, San Antonio has been able to ride its big three of Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili to an incredible extent.
The Spurs' big three have accounted for 64.0% of the team's total possessions during the postseason, which is pretty remarkable considering they're not always on the floor. The next-closest playoff team is in fact the Lakers; Bryant, Gasol and Odom have combined to use 59.9% of L.A.'s possessions. There are five teams whose trios are between 59% and 60% (ironically, a group which doesn't include the Boston trio most frequently called "the big three," at just 54.6% because of Ray Allen's slump and Rajon Rondo's strong play), but nobody is even close to the Spurs.
Less meaningful from an analytical perspective, but interesting nonetheless, is that 14 of the 16 playoff teams have four players who averaged double-figures scoring. New Orleans' fourth-leading scorer was Jannero Pargo at 9.5 points per game; San Antonio's is Michael Finley, who has averaged just 7.2 points per game. Only one team (Boston) has a fifth-leading scorer who averaged fewer points than Finley, and the Lakers' superior depth means they have a remarkable seven players averaging more points per game than Finley.
This isn't necessarily to say the Spurs' role players are playing poorly. Their three-point shooting, especially in Game Seven, was critical to the series win over the Hornets. It's just that this group has been relegated to minor roles. The Lakers would do well to run them off the three-point line when they rotate defensively. As a group, Bowen, Finley, Horry and Ime Udoka have hit 35.4% from downtown in the postseason but just 43.5% of their two-point shots, making them much less efficient when considering the additional value of threes. At this point, none of those four players is dangerous in terms of creating off the dribble.
The big challenge for the Lakers will be defending Parker running the pick-and-roll. When these teams last squared off in the postseason, the Lakers could simply go under picks and sag into the paint against Parker. Now, Parker is too dangerous when allowed to shoot off the dribble to make that a reasonable strategy. In Fisher, the Lakers have a physical defender against Parker who can body him up and try to push him away from the screen. Still, Parker averaged 20.7 points and shot 56.5% against the Lakers in the regular season; finding a way to slow him down with a big man showing hard against the pick-and-roll or even trapping Parker to get the ball out of his hands will be key.
The other troublesome matchup for the Lakers, naturally, is Duncan in the post. Los Angeles can't afford serious foul trouble for either Gasol or Odom, and neither is a great matchup for Duncan down low in terms of pure strength. If the Lakers double-team, they must try to do so off of Parker and with the other big man on the floor instead of allowing the Spurs' wing players to get open looks from downtown. However, over the course of the series, the Hornets found out how difficult that can be. San Antonio got much better three-point looks late in the series than in the early going, a major factor in their comeback. The wisest course for Phil Jackson and his coaching staff may be playing Duncan one-on-one and doing everything possible to keep everyone else quiet. The more minutes the Lakers can steal with Ronny Turiaf defending Duncan, the better.
For the Spurs, Horry has progressively played a larger role as this postseason has gone on. While he came up with a pair of big threes in Game Seven against New Orleans, Horry has shot a paltry 25.9% overall (29.4% from beyond the arc), and the Lakers might do well to see if a repeat of the last two matchups in terms of Horry shooting his own team out of games is in store.
I picked the Spurs to lose to Phoenix. I was wrong. I picked the Spurs to lose to New Orleans, and to lose Game Seven once the series got to that point. Wrong and wrong again. I guess I just haven't learned my lesson yet, because I'm picking against the Spurs again. That's not to say I haven't been impressed with what San Antonio has done in this postseason. At the start of the playoffs, I considered Lakers/Jazz to be the real Western Conference Finals. I don't think that assessment is accurate at this point.
The Spurs have shown the ability to cover their all-too-real flaws with gameplanning over the course of a lengthy series and with terrific defense. Still, the Lakers' advantage in terms of depth will be difficult for the Spurs to overcome. As this postseason continues, fatigue should become something of an issue for San Antonio. Even in Game Seven at New Orleans, jumpers weren't falling for the Spurs in the fourth quarter, but they had built an advantage too large for the Hornets to overcome. As compared to New Orleans, the Lakers are more talented, deeper and have a veteran coach who will negate much of Popovich's ability to make adjustments. The defending champs have proven time and again they won't go down without a fight, but eventually their time will run out. Lakers in seven.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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