For the first time in a while, however, the Lakers are actually looking up in standings at their respected rival. Their previous meetings feature a 19-point loss in San Antonio and another by a bucket at Staples Center. A third loss to the Spurs wouldn't crush the confidence of two-time defending champion -- both teams are too experienced for getting caught up in results one way or the other -- but it would certainly raise eyebrows.
In the meantime, the Lakers are trying to catch Dallas in the standings, so they can't afford a loss even if psychology isn't an issue.
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Pop alone with his thoughts... all of which center around adjustments.
McNeill, on what Sunday's game means to the Spurs (a topic discussed from the Laker perspective in the latest edition of The Triangle): "Not much. Mainly just a matter of pride and making sure things work the way they should as far your system goes. (With) Pop, no matter who they're playing and who's coming to town, it's the same thing every time. It's our system vs. them. We're not changing anything to account for this guy and we're not changing anything to account for this style of play. We're gonna do our thing and try to do it better than they do their thing. They don't make adjustments that much until the playoffs. For them, it's just a matter of making sure everything is fine tuned.
"That's how the entire season is. It's one long fine tuning session before the playoffs begin."
Varner, on the perception of the Lakers from the Spurs and their fans: "I know from an organizational standpoint, Popovich and the team always mention them as the best club in the league and have nothing but respect for them. I think the fans more or less feel the same. You sometimes find some hostile fans, but everyone more or less respects the Lakers as the team to beat in the West, at least from the Spurs' perspective.
"If it doesn't happen in the Western Conference Finals that's it's Spurs-Lakers, I think everyone will be surprised. Given the Spurs' record and the Lakers' pedigree and their current roster, most people are anticipating that it's going to come down to those two teams."
McNeill, on the perception of the Lakers from the Spurs and their fans: "Every Spurs fan looks at the Lakers as the Spurs' biggest rival, where I don't necessarily know if the Lakers feel that way. Especially the way lately it's become Boston that's the Lakers' biggest rival. There's that kind of weird relationship, because I know in Dallas, they hate the Spurs. The Lakers are the biggest team in the cross hairs for Spurs fans, and slightly below that is the Mavericks.
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Spurs fans would be geeked at a Lakers-Spurs Western Conference Finals.
"Everyone in San Antonio loves when bad things happen to the Lakers. They love when the Spurs beat the Lakers. They respect (the Lakers) and they appreciate the greatness, but they hate them."
McNeill, on the ramifications of Tim Duncan's decreasing effectiveness against the Lakers over the course of a potential seven-game series: "I don't think it'll matter all that much, just the way the Spurs' offense has changed this year towards more perimeter oriented. His main job is to set a lot of screens, swing the ball, maybe catch the ball in the post and initiate the offense that way, but it's not designed for him to attack the post like he used to do. He's taking on more of the role of defense anchor, where he's free safety in football, where it's the guy behind the defense who's directing everybody. He's one of the most talkative defensive players in the league, which is why he's so good and why the Spurs have always been such a good defensive team.
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Duncan is an all-time great, but no longer the Spurs' focal point.
"He's kind of taken on that as his major role, so even if he goes a seven-game series averaging 15 (points) and nine (rebounds), it's not necessarily going to be a bad thing for the Spurs."
Varner, however, disagrees with McNeill's opinion of Duncan's effectiveness defensively, particularly against the Lakers: "His lateral quickness isn't there anymore. He's never had much lift and it's even less of a factor now. He doesn't have the same offensive output, so it's not just that defensively, he's slipped a little. It's that he doesn't demand as much defensive attention from the Lakers' frontcourt players. I think from an offensive standpoint, DeJuan Blair will probably average a few points shy of what Tim Duncan would in this series. And that's not to say either one of them would average a lot of points. Maybe Duncan 15 and maybe Blair 10 or 11. But the thing about the Spurs, if they're gonna beat the Lakers, it's gonna be a guard-led attack. Tony Parker will really be the key to that series. The Lakers don't defend the point that well. And I think (Manu) Ginobli could be a big player there.
"It'll come down to basic things, like whether or not the Lakers close out three-pointers and whether or not they can account for Matt Bonner stretching the floor and opening up those driving lanes for Parker and Ginobli and George Hill.
"When I look at a possible series between the Lakers and the Spurs, I really see Tim Duncan as the third most important player on the Spurs roster in terms of changing the series. Maybe even fourth most important player. I just don't see him as a game-changer in that series the way he used to be."