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May 22, 2008
Playoff Prospectus
West Finals, Game One

by Kevin Pelton

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Lakers 89, Spurs 85

The age-old question entering the first game of a series between teams with wildly different amounts of time off between series is whether that means a rested team or a rusty one. (I suppose this actually wouldn't be that hard to study, but I can't say I've ever seen anyone do so. Put it on the ever-expanding to-do list.) Entering the two conference finals series, the consensus seemed to be rest over rust. Conventional wisdom had it Detroit would steal Game One in Boston if Chauncey Billups was healthy (he wasn't, but the Celtics played well anyway) and the Los Angeles Lakers would dominate a San Antonio Spurs team that had one of its two nights of rest--after Game Seven of a hard-fought series with New Orleans--ruined by plane problems.

Through the third quarter last night, the score was clearly Rust 2, Rest 0. The Lakers looked sluggish and the Spurs sharp as San Antonio ran up a shocking 20-point lead midway through the third. At the Staples Center, where the Lakers entered a perfect 5-0 in the postseason, scattered boos rang out. Then, suddenly, everything changed thanks to the indomitable will of one Kobe Bryant.

Bryant's headstrong decision to take over this game, having scored but two points in the first half, was perfectly timed. He scored on three of the next four Los Angeles possessions, assisting on a Pau Gasol bucket on the fourth. By the time Sasha "The Machine" Vujacic canned a three-pointer on the next trip down the floor, the comeback was officially on. All told, the Lakers scored 12 straight.

Still trailing 81-75 with seven minutes left in the fourth, the Lakers would put together another surge, holding San Antonio scoreless for the next 6:14 and to only one field goal the rest of the way. Two Bryant free throws gave the Lakers their first lead; later, after Tim Duncan tied it, Bryant put his team ahead for good on a brilliant play, if not one that was exactly textbook. As Doug Collins suggested, the Spurs aggressively trapped Bryant off the pick-and-roll, looking to get the ball out of his hands. However, Bryant was good enough to dribble out of trouble and get a good look at a runner in the paint. A stop later, the Lakers had emerged with the Game One win everyone expected in a most unexpected fashion.

Viewed from the perspective of the entire game, the Spurs did a solid job on Bryant, who finished with 27 points on 21 shots and four free-throw attempts. San Antonio executed perfectly in terms of keeping Bryant, who failed to shoot at least foul shots for just the third time all postseason, off the free-throw line. On this night, however, it was the sum of Bryant's work that made the difference. He picked his spots perfectly, handing out nine assists with only one turnover in more than 43 minutes of work. This performance was also about the little things, like the steal Bryant came up with in the backcourt early in the fourth quarter that resulted in a layup and helped keep the Spurs from pulling away when it felt like they might have weathered the best run the Lakers had.

Keeping Bryant in to start the fourth quarter, when he usually rests, was one of many moves Phil Jackson made in the second half that worked to perfection. His defensive tweaks and superior intensity at that end of the floor from the Lakers rendered San Antonio impotent on the offensive end. Over the last 18 minutes of the game, the Spurs had more turnovers (seven) than field goals (six).

Jackson and company mixed up defenses on Duncan, offering late double-team help in the fourth quarter but largely defending him straight up most of the game. While Duncan netted 30 points, it took him 25 shots and 10 free-throw attempts to get them, Gasol stayed out of foul trouble (he had only one foul all evening) and San Antonio's three-point shooters never got hot. Meanwhile, the Lakers largely took Tony Parker out of his comfort zone in the second half. Parker kept getting the ball in the corner, which is not where he wants to shoot and from where he has a tough time driving. That one goes on Gregg Popovich to some extent as well. By focusing on getting the ball to Duncan in the left block throughout the fourth quarter, the Spurs went away from the high pick-and-rolls that had been so good to them in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

When the Lakers did double or offer help, they did a good job of running the Spurs off the three-point line and forcing players like Bruce Bowen and Ime Udoka to put the ball on the floor. San Antonio ended up with 20 three attempts, but not of the same quality as in the series with New Orleans, and the Spurs made them at just a 25% clip.

The Lakers' scheme might not have worked so well had it not been for Manu Ginobili struggling throughout the game. Whether because of fatigue or nagging injuries (an explanation he admirably and steadfastly refused to invoke after the game), Ginobili was not himself, missing 10 of his 13 shot attempts and coughing the ball up four times. Someone on the TNT postgame crew noted that Ginobili struggled against the Lakers in the regular season, and it's true. He averaged 14.3 points in the three matchups, shooting 31.1% from the field. San Antonio will need more from him to win this series.

So far, I've mostly focused on the positives for the Lakers, but the Spurs had to do something right to lose by four points on the road, let alone to build up a 20-point lead at one point. In the first half, San Antonio quieted Bryant without giving any quarter to the Lakers' role players. As they have done so effectively for years, the Spurs kept the Lakers from attacking the three-point line (just 10 attempts from downtown, five of them by Vujacic) and did not foul often either. That left the Lakers in dreaded, inefficient midrange two-point land. Derek Fisher particularly struggled without the open three looks he feasted on against Utah, shooting 1-for-9 from the field.

As the teams regroup for Game Two, Jackson has to feel good about the in-game adjustments the team made. If the time off really was behind the Lakers' slow start, they're in excellent shape. On the other side, Popovich and his staff might want to revisit their rotation. They decided in Game One to go small almost all night long, with Fabricio Oberto playing sparingly (12:07) and Kurt Thomas even less (4:13, including no action after halftime). That might be an overreaction. The bigger Spurs lineup doesn't match up well with Lamar Odom, but putting Udoka or Michael Finley on Odom means giving up several inches of height, not to mention hurting San Antonio on the glass.

Odom was quiet most of last night (eight points on 3-of-12 from the field), though he did come up with a big bucket to tie the game. However, with the caveat of a dangerously small sample size, the small lineups weren't particularly effective for the Spurs. With two true big men on the floor, San Antonio was +10 in 9:38 of play. Robert Horry, an ideal compromise between the big and small lineups if he wasn't washed up, was +2 in his 4:51. Over the other 33:30, the Spurs played small and were outscored by 16 points.

Going small is an ominous trend for San Antonio. The last time Popovich ignored his centers because of matchups in a playoff series was in 2006 against Dallas, not coincidentally the only series the Spurs have lost out of the 12 they've played in the last four years. Popovich also restored Jacque Vaughn to his backup point role and gave Brent Barry 11 minutes of run, but neither was effective. While there's a risk of running the starters into the ground, Popovich could keep their minutes down and send Barry and Vaughn back to the end of the bench by giving more run to the younger, fresh Udoka. Increasingly, Udoka is emerging as one of the Spurs' most reliable role players, but he was on the floor for less than nine minutes after halftime.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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