Los Angeles Lakers: Manu Ginobili

Lakers’ defensive effort lacking against Spurs

April, 27, 2013
Buha By Jovan Buha
When the Los Angeles Lakers assembled their roster last summer, they envisioned the dreamlike starting backcourt of Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash leading the team into playoff battles.

But as has been the case for most of the season, the Lakers' dream became a nightmare: Due to a rash of injuries to their rotational guards, Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock were forced to start a playoff game against the San Antonio Spurs on Friday night.

Except the duo's play wasn’t the issue in Game 3. The two combined for 44 points on 17-of-32 shooting, which is better than some of the nights Bryant and Nash have had as a duo.

The issue was the defensive end of the floor, as the Lakers allowed the Spurs to score 120 points on 61.2 percent shooting. The Spurs had more turnovers (14 to 13) and less made free throws (11 to 15), yet they still won by 31 points, making for the worst home loss in Lakers playoff history.

While the Lakers certainly had every excuse to lose considering the personnel they were playing, it was disconcerting to see how little effort they put into their defensive execution, especially in their transition defense.

In the beginning of the fourth quarter, Pau Gasol threw up a wild shot out of a double-team on the left block and, thinking he was fouled, yelled out in frustration and stopped to stare at the nearest referee.

Meanwhile, Manu Ginobili grabbed the rebound and ignited a fast break as Tim Duncan raced downcourt, easily outpacing both Gasol and Dwight Howard, who had also decided to jog back.

One of the keys of transition defense -- which no Laker did -- is stopping the ball, as all five guys turned their backs to Ginobili, who had time to wind up and throw a three-quarters court pass to a wide-open Duncan in the paint.

Chris Duhon, the only Laker who hustled back, had no choice but to foul Duncan, and only then did Gasol and Howard finally get into the fray. Duncan, who’s 37 years old and had played just as many minutes as either Laker big men at the time, made both free throws, extending the Spurs’ lead to 90-67 with 10:41 remaining.

Even when trailing by over 20 points and trying to make a late-game comeback, the Lakers haven’t had the determination to play consistent defense.

Despite misconception, the Spurs aren’t a potent transition team, ranking just 13th in fast-break points and 17th in transition points per possession, but the Lakers allowed them to score 19 fast-break points, which would rank second in the league throughout the season.

By virtually every conceivable category, the Lakers are a below-average defensive team. The Spurs have taken advantage of that all series, using well-timed offensive flurries to turn a one- or two-possession game into a double-digit deficit.

Against an offensive juggernaut like San Antonio that has more depth and talent than the Lakers, there’s almost no margin for error, as Game 3 showed. For the Lakers to have any chance at winning Game 4 on Sunday and extending the series for at least one more game, they’ll have to show a level of defensive coherence and effort that’s been missing all season.

Stats used in this post are from ESPN.com, NBA.com/Stats and MySynergySports.com.

Lakers-Spurs: 10 things to think about

April, 21, 2013
McMenamin By Dave McMenamin
After one of the most arduous and pitfall-filled seasons in Los Angeles Lakers history, if not in the entire history of the league, the guys in purple and gold find themselves in the postseason with a first-round series against the San Antonio Spurs.

L.A. has to feel good about itself, finishing the regular season 28-12 after bottoming out with a record eight games below .500 in late January. They were even better in April, going 7-1, including winning their last five in a row to secure the No. 7 seed and set up their date with the No. 2 Spurs.

However, during that final postseason push, Kobe Bryant went out with an Achilles tear in his left foot, requiring surgery that will sideline him for six to nine months.

Can the Bryant-less Lakers upset a Spurs team that finished with the second-best record in the West and third-best record in the entire league?

Here are 10 things to think about heading into the series to determine just how realistic a possibility that is.

1. San Antonio's home-court advantage

Even though the Spurs looked somewhat ripe for the picking, having gone 3-7 over their final 10 games of the regular season, remember that the series opens up at the AT&T Center, where they went 35-6 this season. Meanwhile, the Lakers were just 16-25 away from Staples Center. It will be a major challenge for L.A. to bring the series back home with a split after the first two games in San Antonio.

2. Hamstrings

Definitely the body part that could have the biggest impact on the series for both teams. Steve Nash plans to play in Game 1 after missing the Lakers' last eight games because of a bum right hamstring, hip and lower back. Manu Ginobili only played one game in April -- an uninspiring 12 minutes in the season finale -- because of his own right hamstring injury. If Ginobili is healthy, he could have a field day carving up the Lakers' perimeter defense that is missing Bryant and has a hobbled Metta World Peace out there still less than a month removed from knee surgery. If Nash is healthy, L.A. gets another elite shooter to help open up the floor so Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol have more room to operate down low.

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Pressure will be a constant

November, 30, 2012
McMenamin By Dave McMenamin
The group that the Los Angeles Lakers’ brass envisions lifting the Larry O’Brien trophy come June has only played five games for its head coach, has yet to play a meaningful game with its Hall of Fame point guard in the lineup and is hovering around .500 as December begins.

That’s the reality for the Lakers.

For the franchise that hangs 16 championship banners from its rafters and employs a payroll close to $100 million, nothing less than a title will be tolerated -- regardless of the reality.

“You can’t be one to make excuses,” Kobe Bryant told me this week.. “You have to figure out how we’re going to get there. Our destination is to win a championship and it’s to get there by any means necessary. So, whatever it is we have to solve, we just have to solve it."

The tight rope the Lakers are teetering on these days makes them have to master the delicate shift between taking care of today while still keeping in mind that the ultimate test is tomorrow.

It has created enormous pressure around every game the Lakers play. A solid win on the road against Dallas is forgotten after a letdown home loss to Indiana. The chart tracking L.A.’s championship stock this season already has more peaks and valleys than John Travolta’s career.

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Lakers vs. Spurs: What to watch

November, 13, 2012
Kamenetzky By Andy Kamenetzky
Well, the Lakers have a new coach in place, but the Bernie Bickerstaff era will not yet go quietly into the night. Happily for those (like me) who enjoy pressers with a hilariously grumpy coach who doesn't hide any disdain for the comical situation he's been put in, Bickerstaff will remain the interim coach for this contest. And while life under Bickerstaff has been fruitful, his double-digit wins have come against the Warriors and Kings, mediocre teams missing several notable names (Andrew Bogut, Brandon Rush, DeMarcus Cousins). The Spurs are far more talented and their roster is fully loaded, which poses a threat to Staples Center's sudden party atmosphere.

For more insight on the Spurs, I conducted an IM conversation with Andrew McNeill from the True Hoop network's 48 Minutes of Hell blog. Below is the transcript.

Andy Kamenetzky: So far, the Spurs have remained, like the Terminator and cockroaches, impossible to kill. How are they making it happen this time around?

Andrew McNeill: A number of things. Good health (so far, fingers crossed). They've got a deep roster that has a number of players who can step up any night. Gary Neal had a career high in scoring against the Blazers on Saturday night, for example. Also, magic.

AK: Just like Gob in "Arrested Development," which reminds me of a brilliant Photoshop sight gag involving Tim Duncan! Speaking of The Big Fundamental, he's putting up some of his best numbers in recent years, and without much of an uptick in minutes. Could this be shaping into a memorable season for Timmy?

AM: It could. I believe pretty strongly his numbers are going to drop off soon, closer to those of last season, mainly because his minutes should drop. But his per-36 minute numbers never change because of Duncan's consistency (and the aforementioned magic). Some have suggested that instead of playing Duncan fewer minutes per game, Gregg Popovich should instead play Duncan heavier minutes and sit him out of more games completely. It's definitely more extreme, but the biggest problem against the Thunder last season was that Duncan couldn't play 40-plus minutes on defense. Once Duncan was out of the game, the Spurs lost their best interior defender.

AK: How do you expect San Antonio's front line to deal with Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard?

AM: There's no question the Spurs have had trouble with Andrew Bynum in the past, and now Howard. Amazingly, though, I think they're a little better equipped with Boris Diaw alongside Duncan. Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair really struggle with bigger players, but Diaw uses his -- ahem -- frame well. The more minutes Duncan, Diaw and Tiago Splitter occupy at the two big positions, the better the Spurs will be. Pop has played Duncan and Splitter together some in this early season, which isn't something he's done a lot of the past two seasons. He'll never admit it, but it could be with the idea of playing them together against bigger front lines like the Lakers.

So the Lakers now have Mike D'Antoni. Are they really equipped to be playing his style of ball, outside of Steve Nash?

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Lakers at Spurs: What to watch

April, 20, 2012
Kamenetzky By Andy Kamenetzky

I had looked forward to these three April games between the Lakers and Spurs with great anticipation. I thought they'd be an instructive gauge of the prospects of a deep playoff run for the Lakers. But the results so far have been anticlimactic. Two games with blowout scores in either direction. And both played without Kobe Bryant.

Tonight, however, might buck this disappointing trend. Kobe's set to hit the hardwood after a seven-game absence, putting both teams at full strength. A win for the Lakers creates even more space between them and the Clippers for the Pacific Division title. And despite apparent indifference toward the one-seed, I imagine the Spurs would enjoy the psychological advantage of two wins over L.A. should these teams meet in the postseason. Stakes are in play, and I expect to see both teams working hard for a win.

To preview this game, I had an IM conversation with Timothy Varner from the True Hoop network's 48 Minutes of Hell blog. Below is the transcript.

Timothy Varner:
During our last chat, the subject was whether the Spurs could contain Andrew Bynum. I think we have to ask whether the Lakers can contain Tony Parker?

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
No Laker was able to slow Parker when last these teams met.

Andy Kamenetzky: I think the Lakers can do a better job. Obviously, Parker is an elite point guard and a handful for every team. But he can't be allowed to become such a devastating scorer and facilitator. 29 points is okay. 13 assists is okay. Both stats aren't. The Lakers need to do a better job forcing the ball out of Parker's hands. Hard traps, hedges and doubles to make him give up the rock, then defend him so it's harder to get the ball back. Also, Ramon Sessions must attack Parker and hopefully draw more fouls. Parker can't do much damage from the bench.

TV: That sounds like a good strategy, but my worry if I'm Mike Brown is the Spurs' offense does such an excellent job of moving the ball -- hard traps, hedges, and doubles might lead to open three pointers.

AK:Sure. That's the problem facing an opponent as talented and versatile offensively as the Spurs. Everyone will need to help and communicate. In the meantime, the Lakers' offense gains a new wrinkle with the return of Kobe. How do you expect the Spurs to defend 24?

TV: By committee—Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili and Stephen Jackson. I'm curious whether Popovich gears his defense more toward Kobe or Bynum?

AK: Were I Pop, Bynum. Not just because Drew's been an exceptionally efficient scorer all season alongside Kobe, but he's also still vulnerable to getting taken out of a game mentally when struggling offensively. When that happens, Bynum's defense can suffer in turn, which hurts the Lakers as a whole. Plus, when you throw the kitchen sink at Drew, he's vulnerable to turning the ball over. And as you may have noticed Tuesday, transition D isn't the Lakers' strong suit.

Kobe sometimes gets caught up in individual battles, and having missed seven games, could work too hard trying to "prove" he's back. But overall, the Lakers live or die with Drew.

TV: I'm also curious what frontcourt the Spurs start. One could make a case for returning to Tiago Splitter, but he and Tim Duncan are not a great pair. Splitter's inability to shoot makes him a better match with Bonner or Diaw. I wouldn't be surprised to see Boris Diaw or Matt Bonner get the start, with Splitter subbing for Duncan.

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SALAIt's been nearly a week since the Lakers put a very unexpected beatdown on the San Antonio Spurs at the AT&T Center without Kobe Bryant. Since then, the Lakers have ripped Mamba-free wins against Denver and Dallas, and are steadily jelling as a well-rounded team in ways not witnessed all season. Of course, this was also a game in which Andrew Bynum grabbed 30 rebounds and the Spurs' Big Three (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker) combined for 27 points. In other words, more extreme circumstances than reliable outliers in terms of gauging how these teams match up in a series. The Spurs haven't been one of the NBA's best all season by accident. Assuming they play at full strength (always a question mark with Gregg Popovich), I expect a tighter sequel.

D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images
Gobble them boards, Drew!

For some thoughts on Lakers-Spurs Part Deux, I had an IM conversation with Timothy Varner from the True Hoop network's 48 Minutes of Hell blog. Below is the transcript.

Andy Kamenetzky: What was the cause of the Spurs' collapse in the first meeting? From start to finish, they just laid an egg.

Timothy Varner: Those who think the Spurs are legitimate contenders always qualify their confidence by saying, "But they're not great against size." For the most part, I agree, although the Spurs did sweep Memphis this season. I suspect the first game was something of a tempest in a teapot. The Spurs should play better against the Lakers in the postseason. However, I will say this. DeJuan Blair is a major defensive liability. He might assume the unusual distinction of starting the majority of games this season, then find himself outside of the playoff rotation. The Spurs' best big-man rotations feature one of Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter, or Boris Diaw with ... Matt Bonner. Odd, huh?

So is Bynum capable of playing that way for an entire series?

AK: "Thirty rebounds a night" capable? No. The kid's talented, but a joke's a joke. But dominating a series is absolutely realistic. And it's important Drew makes domination a goal. More than any player on the Lakers, Bynum dictates wins or losses. There was a three- to four-week stretch after the All-Star break when his effort and intensity fluctuated, particularly on defense, and the team suffered. Over the past few games, he's been focused, and the difference is as massive as his frame. Bynum's presence on the boards and in the lane makes or breaks the Lakers.

You mentioned Blair's defensive issues. On the season, the D has been merely acceptable for San Antonio. Given how the Lakers have evolved into a team with an increasingly prolific and varied scoring attack, do you picture S.A. able to slow them?

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Pre-Draft status updates: Southwest Division

June, 21, 2011
By the Kamenetzky Brothers
The 2011 NBA Draft is Thursday afternoon (4 p.m. PT, ESPN). We've spent scads of time taking stock of where the Lakers stand heading into draft day, and now aim to catch up on the rest of the Western Conference.

Today, the Southwest Division...

San Antonio Spurs

2010-2011: 61-21, lost in the first round to the Memphis Grizzlies 4-2

Picks: 29, Round 1. 59, Round 2.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
Manu Ginobili will once again lead the Manu/Timmeh/(probably) Parker core, but to say the clock is ticking is an understatement.

Where They Stand: At the tail end of an era. It was a strange year for the Spurs, who remained remarkably healthy for most of the season, earned the best record in the Western Conference, then saw Manu Ginobili hurt himself at the worst possible time and lost in the first round to a Memphis team showing oodles of potential. Now the Spurs have one more year with Tim Duncan under contract and two more seasons with Ginobili to go with Tony Parker for their Big Three. I suspect the trio will make at least one more run together, and as the 61 wins from this season attest, it's still a very competitive core. Add in solid role players like Gary Neal, George Hill, DeJuan Blair and Tiago Splitter, and the Spurs have every reason to give it one more go.

In terms of significant pieces likely gone for next season, the only big name is Antonio McDyess, likely retiring after a distinguished 16-year career. Whether he shelves the sneaks or not, the Spurs need some size to bolster the frontcourt and prevent Duncan from being overtaxed. Explosiveness on the wings wouldn't hurt, either, because Richard Jefferson essentially became a spot-up shooter last year, with nearly half of his shots coming from beyond the arc. Parker and Ginobili still attack the rack, but one more guy would take a lot of pressure off a core needing every break it can get.

A little defensive help would be a nice touch, too.

Projections (Round 1): Chad Ford, ESPN.com (Insider Required)- Davis Bertans (SF, Latvia). DraftExpress- Nikola Mirotic (PF, Montenegro)

--Brian Kamenetzky

Dallas Mavericks

2010-2011: 57-25, won the 2011 NBA championship

Picks: 26, Round 1. 57, Round 2.

Where they stand: With bigger fish to fry than the draft. Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea, and DeShawn Stevenson all could depart after playing critical roles in capturing the franchise's first title, and Caron Butler, their second best player before a season ending injury, is a free agent as well. The Mavs outlasted the field in part because of their superior depth, thus their bid to repeat depends in large part on retaining as many useful players as possible to surround their lone superstar (Dirk Nowitzki, for the benefit of the thick).

Andy and Brian talk with David Thorpe (ESPN.com's Scout's Inc.) about what the Lakers can do in the second round of the draft. Plus, a look at the hot rumor (Pau for Kevin Love/#2 pick) and the vocal stylings of Dirk Nowitzki
Podcast Listen
Still, there are needs beyond maintaining continuity. With Roddy Beaubois an unproven commodity, covering their bases with another point guard wouldn't be the worst idea. Shawn Marion will need a backup if Butler isn't re-signed. And while Jason Kidd isn't quite ready yet to drive a Rascal, every year spent counting on a player pushing 40 carries inherent risk. Equally risky is penciling in a shrimp like Barea as a 30-40 mpg lead guard of the future. Again, factors pointing to bolstering the backcourt.

But really, given the team's collective age, prospects at any position are justifiable, particularly since the likelihood of finding a player able to help immediately from their draft position is unlikely.

Projections: Chad Ford - Josh Selby (PG, Kansas), Draft Express- Justin Harper (PF, Richmond)

--Andy Kamenetzky

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Spurs 89, Lakers 88 -- At the buzzer

February, 3, 2011
Kamenetzky By Brian Kamenetzky
On the one hand, L.A.'s one-point loss to San Antonio on Thursday night feels like a another in a long run of frustrating results for the purple and gold. Another loss on their home floor, another chance to beat the league's elite gone by the wayside. On the other, they showed more grit and drive in this game than any in recent memory, and it's not hard to feel as if more efforts similar to this one will produce plenty of wins.

Then again, it didn't tonight. Is it comforting, as two-time defending champion, to know you played hard, and at times very well, even if the result was lacking? Sure, to a point, but once you pass it, it sounds a lot like getting into moral victory territory.

Not the kind the Lakers are looking for.

Here's how it broke down...


Harry How/Getty Images
Antonio McDyess' third field goal of the night was a tough one for the Lakers to absorb.

1. Box. Out. The Lakers won the rebounding battle, 44-38. They surrendered only 10 offensive rebounds on 50 Spurs misses, a very reasonable 20 percent rate, below San Antonio's season average (25.45). ORBs for the Spurs were a problem early, when the Lakers surrendered five in the first quarter, but more important hurt the Lakers late. In what would eventually become San Antonio's winning possession, L.A. had three opportunities to secure a game-winning rebound, and couldn't. Manu Ginobili missed a three on the wing, rebounded by Antonio McDyess. Tony Parker missed a floater in the lane, but Ron Artest couldn't secure the ball as it was tipped around underneath. Finally, Tim Duncan missed what seemed like the final shot of the game...

...until McDyess managed to sneak inside for the winning tip with virtually no time left on the clock. Fourth-chance points to win the game? That'll sting.

(Not that anyone will remember, but Parker also converted a Ginobili ORB about three minutes earlier- San Antonio's first offensive board since the opening quarter if my math is right- to give the Spurs a four-point lead.)

2. Kobe Bryant's Shooting. A little bad luck, here, as a few of his 13 misses (on 18 attempts) rattled in and out, but the bottom line is a fair number of hoists didn't find paydirt. On the other hand, most of his shot choices were reasonable, and given how efficient he has been over the last few weeks it's hard to be too critical of a night where shots don't fall, especially when his totals aren't out of control. My biggest criticism would be a few jumpers he settled for mid-clock that could have turned into interior looks. Ticky-tack, no question.

But while 5-for-18 is 5-for-18- tough to spin in a positive direction- doing so with the rest of his game is easy. Bryant filled the box score with nine rebounds and 10 assists (that's a near triple-double to you and me), moving the ball well from beginning to end. He racked up six assists in the first quarter, and down the stretch teed up Lamar Odom for a pair of critical buckets down the stretch in the fourth, and rifled a pass to Pau Gasol with 22.7 seconds left to give the Lakers a chance to take the lead (which they did).

Overall, Bryant was very productive. I'm just trying to fill a category, here on a night where the Lakers, like Bryant, did a lot very well. Again, I'm trying to figure out if that should make fans feel better or worse.

3. Derek Fisher. He struggled both with keeping up with Parker in the open floor (so does the rest of the NBA) and his shot, missing four of five attempts. Add it up, and it's no surprise he spent the stretch run on the bench in favor of Steve Blake. Granted, Blake wasn't exactly prolific himself. His two-for-eight line meant the Lakers were a rather wretched three-of-13 from the point, making it an undeniably empty spot in their attack. On the other hand, at least Blake took eight shots, showing welcome aggressiveness.

4. Shannon Brown. His shooting slump continued, as he missed seven of 10 from the field, but at least nine of those attempts came from inside the line. Brown put the ball on the floor and didn't settle for threes, a positive sign for a guy who's shot has fallen off a cliff recently. But on a night where the Lakers didn't take all that many shots as a team (80), if Brown is going to account for 10 of them, more than three need to drop.

5. The Final Score. If the Lakers get the stop at the end, we're all hailing this as a critical victory, perhaps one ready to turn a season. But they didn't. Doesn't change the quality of the game put forth, just the feeling after.

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Spurs 97, Lakers 82: At the buzzer

December, 28, 2010
Kamenetzky By Brian Kamenetzky
Apparently, whatever motivational tactics Kobe Bryant had in mind following the Miami game didn't take.

On a night far more important when it comes to practical, how-the-West-will-eventually-be-won implications, the Lakers once again laid an egg, squandering a nice second-quarter run to once again lose by double digits. The Lakers are now six games behind San Antonio for the top seeding in the Western Conference but have far more to worry about. Their offense, so potent at the start of the season, has fallen off a serious cliff. Meanwhile, their defense couldn't pull them through.

AP Photo/Eric Gay
I have had to use WAY too many pictures of unhappy Kobe lately.

The Lakers lost going away, despite quiet nights from both Manu Ginobili (nine points), and Tim Duncan (one field goal). Why? They shot 35 percent as a team, had critical turnovers, and couldn't control guys like DeJuan Blair (17 points, 15 boards). Still, San Antonio shot a manageable 42.5 percent, and left the door open. The Lakers just kicked the door jamb -- repeatedly -- as they tried to go through.

As it stands, the Lakers, facing another tough game Wednesday in New Orleans, will either need to play dramatically better basketball over their final 50 games in the face of a brutal schedule, or hope San Antonio comes back to the pack. Credit the Spurs -- they played a strong team game and don't look the slightest bit ready to backslide. The Lakers will improve as the season goes along (it'll take some time, though, because what ails them is far more than simple boredom), but the context of this season has very likely shifted for good.

Here's how it broke down, bad news first...

Three Down:

1. Kobe Bryant. He came out hot early, going glass on Ginobili on his first shot of the game, popping to the free throw line away from the ball to hit another jumper, and finishing another possession with a brutally tough, fadeaway jumper over Manu. All told, it was a 4-for-5 start for 24, and it looked as if he was going to roll. Or maybe not. He'd finish the first quarter 4-of-10, and go to the half 4-for-14. In the third, he managed to hit a shot. Singular, ending a streak of 13 straight misses (a personal single-game record, no surprise). Heading into the fourth, Bryant had missed 14 of 19. A brief flurry in the fourth brought up his point total, but in the end he finished 8-of-27.

For those keeping score at home, that's 16 more attempts than any of his teammates. Nineteen more than Pau Gasol, 18 more than Lamar Odom. And, as Bryant will often do after going cold, he spent much of the game trying to shoot his way back into form, despite ample evidence ball movement and inside touches were an effective strategy for the Lakers. Bryant grew, rightly at times, frustrated with his inability to get a whistle -- he went to the line only twice -- but too often left the context of the offense to try to do the Superman thing even as San Antonio defended him aggressively. Even at the start, when he was hot, it was a bad tone.

Too much Kobe early threatens to take everyone else out of the game, unless he can reverse course and take less upon himself as a shooter. 10 shots in the first quarter -- and he didn't play all 12 minutes -- doesn't qualify.

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Lakers at Spurs: What to watch with Timothy Varner, 48 Minutes of Hell

December, 28, 2010
Kamenetzky By Brian Kamenetzky
As the saying goes, the first step in extricating oneself from a hole is to stop digging.

This is the task facing the Lakers, loyally lugging shovels through the first 30 games of the '09-'10 season, tonight in San Antonio. Already five games back in the Western Conference to the 26-4 Spurs, even with 51 regular season games still to play following Tuesday's tilt, the Lakers can't afford to drop to six assuming they're still interested in securing the conference's top seed. (As noted Monday, there's certainly value in the number one spot.) Not facing a schedule littered with playoff caliber opponents and what appears to be a more competitive top five (San Antonio, Dallas, Utah, L.A., and Oklahoma City) in the Western Conference doing no favors for the twice-defending champs.

Noah Graham/Getty Images
Phil Jackson says Pau Gasol has been playing without a base of late. He might want to find one before facing Tim Duncan in San Antonio.

After Saturday's debacle, the Lakers were back on the floor Monday looking to right some wrongs and find a little fire. The expectation is a better performance come game time, a requirement if the Lakers want to knock off the Spurs, owners of a 17-2 record at home.

To get a better feel for what has made San Antonio so dominant this season and the challenges they pose for the Lakers, we hit up Timothy Varner of 48 Minutes of Hell, a killer Spurs blog and member of the TrueHoop Network, asking him four questions about tonight's game. Read his answers, and become a smarter person for your trouble.

(While you're at it, take in this statistical breakdown of the game from 48MOH's Scott Sereday, and get even smarter. Feel free as well to hit my responses to Tim's questions about the Lakers, though they could very well dumb you down again.)

1. The Spurs seem to have reinvented themselves this season. What has been the most profound change, and how surprised were you to see Gregg Popovich switch gears like this?

The Spurs are scoring more often than in the past and their offense might be described as a departure, but not in the radical reinvention sort of way. They’re running the same motion and pick and roll sets as they’ve used in the past, but are focusing more on those plays creating action for the guards rather than the post.

If you want to focus on two newish wrinkles, then I’d draw your attention to the Spurs’ outlet passes (particularly those generated by Tim Duncan) and the number of offensive players the Spurs have on the court at one time.

With regard to the first wrinkle, the Spurs are pushing the ball off the rebound, and San Antonio will often advance the rebound to the timeline, where a guard likes to receive the ball on the wing. From there, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili or George Hill will attempt to push the ball to the basket, if possible. If not, they set up and run the same stuff you’ve seen for years. But basically, San Antonio’s transition offense is predicated on their outlet passing.

In should be noted here that many of San Antonio’s fast breaks are simply Parker contra mundum, and the only difference between last season and this season is that Parker is healthy this year.

The second wrinkle is that Gregg Popovich has always favored 5-man units with at least one perimeter stopper on the floor, and he was willing to live with said players offensive liabilities so long as they delivered on the defensive end. Bruce Bowen became Ime Udoka became Keith Bogans. When the defender was Bowen, the Spurs were wildly successful and bit the bullet that was playing four on five, offense to defense. But as Bowen began to fade, and as the Spurs discovered that finding Bowen’s replacement was something of an impossible task, the Spurs learned playing a defender with tremendous offensive limitations was not a workable option.

That brings us to this season: the Spurs no longer feature a perimeter defender. Instead, they play five capable offensive players for 48 minutes. Typically, they feature four three point shooters, and occasionally they’ll play five guys who can all gun from deep. San Antonio leads the league with a 3P% of .408. In this sense, the Spurs offense seems much more of a drive and kick operation than in past years. In actuality the Spurs have always had these options built into their offense, but they haven’t always had the personnel to effectively execute them.

In addition to new shooters Gary Neal and James Anderson, Hill and Ginobili are letting it fly, mostly to the good of the team. Parker, who is still adding to his game at the tender age of 28, has finally made himself a sideshow in the three point act, averaging a career-high .381 from the arc. Matt Bonner is shooting an insane .511 on three point attempts. Richard Jefferson is crushing his career numbers by shooting .448 from deep, thanks, in large part, to a rebuilt jumpshot. And although the Spurs still love the corner three, their newly-realized offensive-mindedness is willing to catch ad shoot from anywhere. It’s a big difference from a lineup that may have previously featured, say, Bowen, Fabricio Oberto and Kurt Thomas.

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Lakers lose to San Antonio: The reactions

April, 5, 2010
Kamenetzky By Brian Kamenetzky
The Lakers started strong, building a 21-13 lead over the first nine minutes of Sunday's game with San Antonio at Staples. Unfortunately, league rules mandate another 39 minutes of play before a game can be declared finished. Those were the ones hurting the home team in what became a 100-81 loss.

We ran the gamut in yesterday's wrap, from the horrible destruction laid on L.A. by Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan down the stretch to Phil Jackson's issues with officiating and some ugly numbers produced by the offense. Kevin Arnovitz broke down in moving pictures the fourth quarter meltdown.

Click below for everything else the media had to say...

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I'm not entirely sure if Lakers fans are ready to re-live the final eight minutes-plus of the team's 100-81 loss to the Spurs Sunday afternoon, but in terms of diagnosing what went wrong for the purple and gold what follows below is a great breakdown of the... um, action.

Again, friend-of-the-blog Kevin Arnovitz delivers some video and commentary highlighting those ways in which the game went off the rails.

Instructive stuff, particularly since these teams could certainly meet in the first round of the playoffs.

Our thanks to Kevin for again taking the time to put together a great reel.

Best and worst for L.A. in first round:
The experts weigh in

April, 1, 2010
Kamenetzky By Brian Kamenetzky
Despite the terrible road trip, for all practical purposes the Lakers have wrapped up the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs. (If they somehow lose it, what follows becomes a moot point and quite frankly I'll already have hunkered down in my secret underground bunker, waiting for the fallout to pass.) Behind them, the other seven teams on the postseason ladder are clustered together, stepping all over each other and fighting for space on the same rungs.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
So is Kobe vs. Brandon Roy a good thing or a bad thing for L.A.?

Through Wednesday, only 4.5 games separate seeds two through eight, and things are particularly tight near the bottom. Oklahoma City has 28 losses, Portland and San Antonio 29. While there's still a fair amount of basketball to be played, in all likelihood, the Lakers will see either Timmy D. and Co., the Blazers, or Thunder.

None are cakewalks.

Currently the Spurs occupy the eight spot, and while Monday's road loss to the Nets implies they're not interested in rising, don't be fooled. They destroyed the Rockets Wednesday, and are filled with cunning, guile, and championship savvy. Meanwhile, the Thunder are young, dynamic, just beat the snot out of L.A. last week and are fresh off a road win in Boston. Portland is finally healthy (as healthy as they'll get, at least) and have won 14 of their last 17.

Any of the three constitute a greater opening round challenge than the Nuggets two years ago, or last season's Jazz squad.

So which one constitutes the most favorable matchup for the purple and gold? Which is the least? (Note: I'm aware the current answer seems to be "any NBA team with a pulse," but putting aside those concerns for a moment...)

We have our opinions... but at this point in the season, aren't you tired of hearing them? So we polled 15 members of the local and national media, from beat writers to bloggers, asking for their POV's (we'll chime in at the end, because we can't help ourselves).

The Respondents: Elliott Teaford (Los Angeles Daily News), Kevin Ding (Orange County Register), Mark Medina (Los Angeles Times), Henry Abbott (ESPN.com TrueHoop), Kevin Arnovitz (ESPN.com TrueHoop), Ramona Shelburne (ESPN Los Angeles.com), Dave Miller (former NBA assistant coach), Chris Palmer (ESPN The Magazine), Kurt Helin (ProBasketballTalk.com), Eric Pincus (Hoopsworld), Chris Clark and "Wondahbap" (Silver Screen and Roll), Darius Soriano (Forum Blue and Gold), Arash Markazi (ESPNLosAngeles.com).

Here's how it broke down:

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Lakers 101, Spurs 89: Who needs Kobe anyway? (Postgame analysis and video)

February, 9, 2010
Kamenetzky By Brian Kamenetzky
It's a joke people. Don't send the angry email.

Breakdown below...

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Nick Young
17.9 1.5 0.7 28.3
ReboundsJ. Hill 7.4
AssistsK. Bryant 6.3
StealsK. Bryant 1.2
BlocksW. Johnson 1.0