Lakers – Spurs Preview

59572787As has become typical of Gregg Popovich Spurs teams, the Silver and Black are picking up their play as the playoffs approach, even with starting point guard Tony Parker going on the shelf on March 6 with a hand injury, due to return in mid April.

In fact, the Spurs have gone 9-3 in March* after a 6-5 February, their only three losses coming at Cleveland by two points, at Orlando and at Atlanta in overtime.
*This comes as no surprise, since the Spurs are the NBA’s best March team since Tim Duncan was drafted in 1997, going 152-54 for a .738 winning percentage (L.A. is second at 134-69, .660).

In related news, Manu Ginobili has been playing like … a healthy Manu Ginobili, averaging 21.2 points and 5.7 assists while shooting 53 percent from the field and 45 percent from 3-point range in March. Throw in solid bench production, Tim Duncan’s consistency and an improving Richard Jefferson and the Spurs are dangerous.

“(Ginobili’s improved play) helps a lot and I think their bench has been very successful,” said Jackson said after the team photo on Tuesday. “They had a game the other night against Golden State where (Tim) Duncan played 13 minutes and it was one of the highest scoring games they’ve ever had. It just says something about their bench coming to life and their players all supporting one another.”

The Spurs’ bench, which leads the NBA in scoring (40.3) and assists (9.0) [Ginobili's 35 games off the pine don't hurt the averages] consists of Roger Mason Jr., Matt Bonner, DeJuan Blair, Keith Bogans, while Malik Hairston gets some minutes from time to time. Second-round draft pick Blair leads the bench in points (7.7) and rebounds (6.1), Bonner chips in 6.9 points and Mason 6.6.

George Hill started the season on the bench before earning a starting spot even before Parker got hurt, and he’s playing his best ball of late, scoring a season-high 27 points in San Antonio’s 99-96 win over Oklahoma City on Monday.

59265495First Round Meeting Looming?
When the Lakers and Spurs have met in the playoffs five times throughout a decade they’ve collectively dominated (seven of 10 championship isn’t bad), it hasn’t been in the first round, not once:

2001 Western Finals (4-0 Lakers)
’02 Western Semis (4-2 Lakers)
’03 Western Semis (4-2 Spurs)
’04 Western Semis (4-2 Lakers)
’08 Western Finals (4-1 Lakers)

But this season, the first round remains a distinct possibility, with the Spurs currently just a game out of the No. 8 slot and L.A. in first place, five-and-a-half games ahead of Denver and Dallas. San Antonio and Oklahoma City – whom the Lakers play on Friday – share a 42-27 mark, two games behind Phoenix for the No. 6 slot, while Portland checks in at 42-29.

While San Antonio’s been playing good basketball, they face a very difficult schedule that includes two home and away meetings with the Lakers, home games against Cleveland (56-15), Orlando (50-21) and Memphis (38-33) and road tilts against Boston (45-25), Phoenix (45-26), Dallas (46-24) and Denver (47-23). Ten of S.A.’s 13 games come against teams that are above .500, eight against teams with Top 10 NBA records.

The Thunder’s schedule is also difficult, including home games against Houston, the Lakers, Portland, Denver, Phoenix and Memphis and road contests at Boston, Dallas, Utah and Portland.

The Trail Blazers, however, have a softer schedule, the toughest games coming home against Dallas (twice) and Oklahoma City and roadies including at Denver and the Lakers.

59265402The Numbers
The Lakers logically have a statistical edge over San Antonio, as shown with the majority of these numbers:

- L.A. is sixth in the NBA in scoring and 10th in points allowed, while S.A. is 14th in scoring and 8th in points allowed.
- L.A. ranks fifth in field goal defense and the Spurs 12th.
- The Lakers lead the NBA in rebounding while San Antonio ranks 11th.
- L.A. is eighth in the NBA in steals per game, S.A. 26th.
- The Lakers rank 10th in the league from the free throw line and the Spurs 20th.
- L.A. commits the 2nd fewest personal fouls, S.A. 14th.

The Spurs do have their areas of advantage:

- San Antonio shoots the ball very well, ranking sixth in field goal percentage and 3-point percentage. The Lakers come in at 13th from the field and 19th from three.
- The Spurs are third in the NBA at fewest offensive boards allowed, while the Lakers are 18th.
- S.A. ranks fifth in assists, the Lakers 14th.