Because of these implications, I felt a blog exchange was in order and thus contacted Timothy Varner of the outstanding 48 Minutes of Hell blog. He answered my queries about the Spurs. I followed suit in regard to the Lakers. As a result of our combined forces, I present everything you'd want to know about tonight's game ... except the final score.
Not because we don't know, but because we're just not telling you.
Andy Kamenetzky: Tony Parker's hand injury had many wondering if the Spurs could hang in there, if they might even miss the playoffs. Instead, they've gone 6-3 (7-3 if you count the game Parker went down) and have maintained a solid pace. How do you think they've gotten by without Parker?
Timothy Varner: The short answer is that the Spurs' offensive execution is at season-best levels. A slightly longer answer would detail Manu Ginobili's resurgence, George Hill's rise to the level of a bonafide NBA starter (the Lakers were hot for Hill leading up to the '08 draft), and, don't look now, the fact that Richard Jefferson is finally beginning to look at home in the San Antonio Spurs' offense.
AK: The Jefferson acquisition has been largely viewed as a failure and he's never seemed quite comfortable with his role on the Spurs. But checking out his splits, he has been shooting 50 percent for the month of March, his rebounding numbers are up and he's even been better at the line. Is he showing signs of clicking? If so, why?
TV: Those March splits are telling. Jefferson's rebounding is the number that jumps out. Richard Jefferson is averaging 6.3 boards a game in March, a full two rebounds above his season average. His rebounding is leading to more San Antonio breaks -- breaks he often ignites off the board -- and the increased transition offense suits him well.
AK: Throughout the season, I've heard Tim Duncan described as clearly having lost a step or two and quietly putting up an MVP-caliber season. Where do you come out on the topic? Along these lines, I once heard a commentator describe Duncan as bothered more by defenders of length more than someone with a big body. I found this interesting, and after paying attention, fairly accurate. What's your take, given how with Andrew Bynum out, Duncan will spent the game largely checked by the rangy Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom?
TV: The Duncan question is complex. Yes, Tim Duncan is still one of the best big men in the game -- and he's still a championship-level centerpiece. From the perspective of PER, he's the best big in basketball, ranking just in front of Chris Bosh and Dwight Howard. But he is bothered by defenders with length more now than ever before. Serge Ibaka gave him fits Monday night. But this problem is compounded by a bigger personnel problem with the San Antonio Spurs -- the team lacks an interior defensive presence beyond Tim Duncan. Duncan not only anchors the interior defense, he hoists the sails and blows hard against the flaps until they're pregnant with wind. It's too much for a player his age.
AK: In the first meeting between these teams, Kobe hurt his back and didn't play the fourth quarter. In the second, he was out. Thus, we haven't seen much of a sample size in terms of who takes on Bruce Bowen's role as the guy trying to slow Kobe. Who is that for the Spurs and how effective do you think he'll be, all things being realistic.
TV: Gregg Popovich thinks Bruce Bowen'sreplacement is Keith Bogans. In reality, Spurs basketball is altogether bereft of a wing stopper. Kobe will pick his spots, and he'll get all of them.
AK: Like I said, Kobe was out for much of the first two games. In the third and fourth, Bynum and Parker likely won't be available. Do you think we'll have an idea of how these teams actually stack up against each other in the playoffs, should they meet in the playoffs? Do the injury circumstances make it hard to tell, or do the records kind of say it all?
TV: I like the Lakers in the West; I like the Lakers in the Finals. San Antonio won't have much to say in that conversation. Still, the Spurs are playing their best basketball of the season over the last month, and they're flirting with being a good team. If they can draw Denver in the first round, they might make noise all the way to the Western Conference Finals. But Spurs' and Lakers' records are a solid indicator of how that would play.
And here are my answers to the questions Varner asked in regard to the Lakers:
TV: What is this occasional chatter about a potentially Phil Jackson-less Lakers team?
AK: Funny you should ask, as Steve Springer tackled this question in an exclusive Jerry Buss interview published today on ESPNLosAngeles.com. There's also an accompanying article. (And with that, material from the mothership site was cross-promoted in a legitimately organic manner! Bosses, please take note!) Because Jackson becomes a free agent after this season, the rumor mill has everything from plans for a forced -and ultimately rejected- pay cut to interest in securing Byron Scott while available to familial divides prompting the lack of closure.
Buss says it's all a moot point, because Jackson would wait until after the season even if the extension was formally offered. I tend to believe this. Coaches of Phil's stature and age typically take their time before committing whenever possible and save a spectacular postseason flame out, it's hard to believe his job security is truly at risk. (If they won a title, it's borderline impossible to buy.) You never know, particularly in the crazy, nutty world that is the Lakers organization, but my guess is he'll be back next season.
TV: Up until very recently, I would chosen Kobe Bryant over any player in the NBA. But now, I would choose LeBron James and, perhaps, Kevin Durant in front of Bryant. Am I crazy, or is Kobe showing signs of decline?
AK: It depends on how you define "decline." If you're judging by pure athleticism alone, Kobe clearly isn't the same player of three years ago. He'd be the first to acknowledge this, and the reality is apparent in ways like not playing above the rim at the same frequency of the "81" season, much less the Three-peat era. He's 31 with a lot of wear on them tires. Having said that, the guy is hardly Matt Bonner (no offense to either the Spurs faithful or redheads). He remains a pretty sick athlete and hardly a "liability" in this regard.
If I had to guess, the decline you're referring to, beyond the natural effects of age, is caused by injuries (ankle, back, finger) this season. In particular, his fractured finger, which I think affects Kobe more than he readily admits, and on several levels. His percentage from the field has dropped markedly since the injury. I suspect the bad finger also affects his handle, making it harder at times to create his own shot and avoid turnovers. Defensively, it hurts the ability to physical D and fight through screens.
Bottom line, playing with a screwed up finger on your dominant hand is no walk in the daisies.
Mind you, he still gets on absurd shooting rolls, is averaging six APG in March and remains the NBA's best player with a game on the line, so it's all relative. Even if Kobe's in "decline," we're not talking about a roll down a particularly steep hill.
TV: What are the Lakers' biggest vulnerabilities? If someone came back from the future and told you the Lakers failed to reach the Finals and made you guess their shortfalls, what would you say?
AK: First, outside shooting. Despite having Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom at their disposal, the Lakers are often inexplicably fond of hoisting treys (10th in the league for launches). Unfortunately, they're not nearly as fond of actually making them. (34.2%, T-20th). When created inside-out through the post, the three-ball often falls with better success. But when created along the perimeter (or in particular, as a reaction to the zone D permanently baffling them), the Lakers might as well be spotting up D.J. Mbenga in the corner, since the end result won't be much worse than when it's Jordan Farmar, Derek Fisher, Shannon Brown, etc.
Beyond this, I think the biggest issue is a lack of consistent execution. Don't let the smooth taste of 52 wins fool you. The Lakers really haven't developed a steady rhythm this season. And it's gotten worse as the season's progressed. They've grown increasingly sloppy, whether in regards to running the offense, shot selection, taking care of the ball, consistently playing to their strengths (inside-out, measured pace, etc.) and overall focus. To some degree, I think this is the unavoidable result of injuries (Kobe, Gasol, Ron Artest, Bynum). Shifting lineups have killed the chance to improve off continuity, which I consider an extremely important element. Last season, save Bynum (who they were already used to playing without), the Lakers were largely injury-free, and that's huge in building towards greatness. Not the case this season, an issue compounded by the immersion of Artest into the system and, frankly, a lack of urgency towards the situation.
It's so important to head into the playoffs with a steady rhythm, and I question whether enough time remains for the Lakers to discover that flow. Doesn't mean they still can't win it all, but life grows considerably more difficult in that scenario.
TV: Why has Phil Jackson increasingly drifted away from the triangle offense?
AK: I actually don't think this is the case. Because Phil is so heavily associated with the triangle and few teams run it, when the Lakers operate outside the system, those sequences tend to stand out like a sore thumb. But the reality is they've never been triangular slaves. It's simply the base for how they operate. The Lakers remain a systematic team. How often they adhere to that system is a situational matter or, frankly, a matter of the players remaining disciplined enough to run it.