NBA playoffs: San Antonio Spurs vs. Los Angeles Lakers preview
Since Tim Duncan's 1997 arrival in San Antonio, the extraordinary Spurs have won at least 50 games (or the equivalent, taking into account the lockout year of '99) and contended for the championship every year. They've met the Lakers in six playoff series since Duncan arrived, with the winner twice advancing on to the NBA Finals. That's why this series will carry extra meaning: There will be important people on both sides who will remember when the entire league revolved around this matchup. It won't be the same without Kobe Bryant, however.
While the Lakers will be seeking yet again to come up with a new style of play -- this time to compensate for the season-ending injury to Bryant -- the Spurs will continue to run their system. They've enhanced their chances by improving the athleticism among their role players with guys like Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Gary Neal. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have recovered from late-season injuries and are back in the rotation, while Duncan had a better year than either Dwight Howard or Pau Gasol. All the Spurs need from their Hall of Fame trio is to play to normal standards. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili don't need to elevate their games in order to beat the Lakers. So long as they remain patient and run their well-worn playbook at both ends of the floor, they can be confident of avoiding the kinds of lapses that have defined the Lakers this season. If the Spurs are able to play anything close to a 48-minute game, then there will be little the Lakers can do to compete with them.
Any hope for the Lakers depends on the health of 39-year-old point guard Steve Nash, who was limited to 50 games this season and hasn't played since March. The Lakers are hoping the time off will have cured him of his recent back, hip and ankle issues because they need big minutes from him. In the absence of Bryant, coach Mike D'Antoni will be counting on Nash to establish a tempo and style that will create open looks for Gasol -- which in turn may open up the paint for Howard. The Lakers can draw confidence from their two now healthy big men as well as the renewal of Steve Blake, who missed 37 games this season. The loss of Bryant means that the Lakers must compensate with easy baskets in transition and ball movement -- and Nash gives them the potential to fulfill those aims. But can they do it quarter after quarter and game after game? Can they, for the first time this season, show that they can maintain their intensity in the absence of their most intense player?
Manu Ginobili. Duncan and Tiago Splitter will be fully occupied by Gasol and Howard, while Parker must deal with Nash. That creates an opportunity for Ginobili to make a huge difference in the series. If he is able to come off the bench and change the game, then he'll give the Spurs the kind of lift that the Lakers cannot expect from their skimpy second unit. Ginobili doesn't need to look like he's 28 years old again -- all the Spurs need from him is his typically aggressive play and his nose for the ball. He'll provide steadying leadership for San Antonio's role players.
San Antonio in 5. The names on their roster -- minus Bryant -- make the Lakers extremely dangerous. Then again, those names have been on the roster all season, and apart from their closing stretch of eight wins in nine games to make the playoffs, the Lakers haven't shown a commitment to working together seamlessly. They'll enter this series continuing to piece together an identity, and that's no way to approach a series against a focused and coordinated team like the Spurs, whose three stars have been feeding off one another for 11 years. Teamwork is indispensable in the NBA playoffs. The Spurs have it and the Lakers don't.