Lakers 93, Spurs 91
It never should have come down to that, and I don't necessarily mean that the way you think I do.
The enduring story of Game Four of the Western Conference Finals will be the no-call on the last play of the game. With host San Antonio trailing by two and a little more than two seconds to play, Brent Barry drew Derek Fisher into him well beyond the three-point line. With no whistle forthcoming, all Barry could do was heave an errant attempt at the basket, time running out in the process.
It never should have come down to that, most obviously because the Lakers led by seven with 56 seconds left before a chaotic stretch allowed San Antonio to get in a position to tie or win. Even more than that, however, this seemed like a game in which the Spurs never should have had a chance in the first place. They shot 40.0% from the field and 29.2% (7-of-24) from downtown and were badly beaten on the glass. So many times the Spurs seemed to be on the ropes, only to bounce back. The play of champions this was not for San Antonio, but the Spurs did show championship-caliber heart.
Along the way--conspiracy theorists take note--San Antonio benefited from 26 trips to the free-throw line, as well as an uncommonly strong effort once at the charity stripe. Tim Duncan, often erratic on his free throws, was 9-of-11, and those were the Spurs' only two misses all evening long. Had the Lakers been able to keep San Antonio off the line, they might have been able to wrap this one up early.
Consider it this way. The Spurs had 12 possessions end in two-shot fouls, scoring 22 points on them for a 183.3 Offensive Rating. On their other 73 possessions, they scored 69 points, a rate of 94.5 points per 100 possessions. Obviously, free throws are always the most efficient way to score, but San Antonio's offense was twice as good at the line. Now, that's an oversimplification because most of the time fouls come on plays where a defender is already beaten, but also note that foul trouble also cost the Lakers starters Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom as the Spurs rallied late in the first half.
San Antonio needed the free throws because, once again, the team's offense proved all too vulnerable to extended droughts. The Spurs went more than three minutes without a score in the first quarter as the Lakers built up an early lead that they never entirely relinquished (as the TNT crew noted, the Spurs were able to tie but never again retake the lead). The more crucial drought came down the stretch. Down 79-77 after a Brent Barry runner with 8:48 to go, San Antonio made only one of its next seven shot attempts in a span of over five minutes. The Spurs defense was equal to the task for several strong possessions, but when Odom broke through for a dunk and a three-point play, followed by Kobe Bryant taking a steal coast to coast for a dunk, the game seemed all but finished.
(That it wasn't reflected how fragile even a seemingly comfortable lead can be down the stretch. All it took were two Pau Gasol misses from the free-throw line, a Manu Ginobili three, an ill-fated foray to the hoop by Bryant and an ensuing Tony Parker runout to get the Spurs within a stop and a three of winning.)
Thanks to the free throws and abnormally good care of the basketball (nine turnovers in 85 possessions), San Antonio put together a reasonably efficient offensive effort. As the droughts evidenced, however, it was a tenuous formula for the Spurs. With Ginobili as invisible as he had been dominant in Game Three, finishing with seven points on 2-of-8 shooting in 36 minutes, Barry came up huge and emerged as the third member of the big three on this night. Barry hit five threes and scored 23 points; in his 27 minutes of action, the Spurs were a +24. San Antonio was thus outscored by a whopping 26 points in the 21 minutes Barry sat on the bench.
Tony Parker put up an impressive stat line--23 points on 17 shots and seven foul attempts, with nine assists and only one turnover--but it belied his impact on the game, which was hit and miss. The Lakers made Duncan work for everything, with Gasol doing an impressive job of using his length to bother Duncan. And, aside from seven points from Bruce Bowen, that was basically it for the San Antonio offense. Robert Horry added in two points (and, again, the Spurs were in the black with him in the game, +5 in his 16 minutes of action). The other four players who saw the court--a wildly-ineffective Fabricio Oberto (no shot attempts in 22 minutes, during which San Antonio was outscored by 15 points), Michael Finley (bizarro Barry on this night, a -18 in just under nine minutes of play), Ime Udoka and a Kurt Thomas cameo--did not score a single point in 40 minutes of action. This is what it has come to for the Spurs.
At the other end of the floor, the overlooked story of the game was the damage the Lakers did on the offensive glass. Overall, they grabbed 13 offensive rebounds in 42 opportunities, which is good against the Spurs but hardly otherworldly. However, the Lakers were extremely efficient in converting those second chances into good looks and points. They had 20 second-chance points on those 13 boards, including several crucial buckets to hold San Antonio at bay during the second quarter.
The follow scores were a big reason why the Lakers had so few assists (17 on 38 buckets). Even without a bunch of assists, their ball movement was far better than in Game Three, resulting in good looks in the paint and forcing San Antonio to rotate out of position on the glass. Gasol wasn't a big-time scorer, finishing with 10 points, but he played strong in the paint, grabbed 10 rebounds and handed out six assists. Meanwhile, Odom came up big when the Lakers needed him and Bryant did a solid job most of the night picking his spots. Credit Bowen and company for continuing to keep Bryant out of the paint and off the line (he had no free-throw attempts on 29 shots, which is remarkable), but the MVP still managed to impose his will on the game.
Meanwhile, the true upset of the game was this: The Lakers finished the first half with an 8-2 run to unbreak a tie and then had a 6-0 run to close the third quarter, but Doug Collins, normally obsessed with finishing quarters well, never once mentioned it that I heard. In this case, it was probably worth a note along the same lines as the Spurs being unable to ever take the lead, forcing them to play from behind all night long.
So now, San Antonio heads to Los Angeles in a desperate position, and Gregg Popovich must do everything possible to win Game Five on Thursday. That means he ought to at least consider benching two starters--Oberto, a terrible fit for the style of this series who has given the Spurs little, and Finley, who is done done done at this point. At a desperate point of the series with New Orleans, Popovich successfully slashed his rotation, and the time has come to do so again. At this point, there are only seven players the Spurs can really rely on--their big three, Bowen, Horry, Barry and Udoka--and they should play the vast majority of the minutes in Game Five.
For the Lakers, complacency has become their most challenging opponent. They cannot believe this series is over simply because they got a split in San Antonio. Of course, Phil Jackson didn't win nine championships by allowing his teams to look ahead. The Lakers don't need to get creative strategically. If they play their game, the Spurs don't have the firepower to keep up barring huge games from the big three. Play smart and play well on Thursday and the Lakers will be celebrating a return to the NBA Finals.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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