Spurs - Lakers Preview: Winning Is The Cause

With five straight losses fresh in the rear view mirror, the Los Angeles Lakers welcome to town the team with the best record in the NBA, the San Antonio Spurs.  Remove the team names from that description, and the expectation for tonight's contest would be somewhere in the laughable category.  But, the five game losers also happen to be the defending champions, and were 17-1 prior to this epic losing streak, and the best team in the league doesn't have a whole lot to play for.

The Lakers have left themselves with quite a bit to play for over their last two games.  They are tied with Dallas in the loss column, and one has to expect that Dallas will pick up a victory home against the struggling Hornets tomorrow, requiring the Lakers to sweep both remaining games to lock in the West's 2nd seed. They are a game up on the OKC Thunder, so one win in the remaining two will keep them in the 2-3-6-7 bracket.  Looking to the East, Chicago and Miami are both uncatchable for home court in a potential NBA Finals matchup, and the Boston Celtics have a tough home game against the streaking Knicks to even entertain the possibility of passing the Lakers in that mini-race.

But the truth is that very little of it matters at this point.  The Lakers are more or less locked into the 2-3-6-7 bracket.  With the Hornets falling down to a probable 8th seed, how much advantage is to be gained by being the 2 instead of the 3?  It's pretty uncertain which of the Grizzlies and Blazers will be which seed by season's end (though will know just about for certain after tonight's head to head matchup in Portland), and besides I'm not sure which team I'd rather face if I were the Lakers.  Portland has troubled the Lakers for years with athleticism and a raucous home crowd, but the Grizz have the size to take away the singular advantage the Lakers enjoy over most teams, and besides, a full seven game series against Memphis might drive Andrew Bynum to madness, warding himself from injury with crosses, holy water, and a huge garlic necklace.  Either that, or he'll just encase his legs in casts of concrete, and that might limit his mobility.  In truth, of the four teams involved in that portion of the bracket, the Mavericks appear to me to be the least threatening.  Not having home court in the second round wouldn't be great, but it would hardly change the predicted victor in the space between my ears.

My point in all this is that it is important for the Lakers to get off the canvas and start delivering some of their own knockout blows, but the reason why it's important has very little to do with positioning, seeds, or home court advantage.  Winning is the reason.  The Lakers need to start winning because winning is what they do, what teams with championship aspirations do.  It's not about their confidence because, let's face it, the Lakers could lose fifteen straight and still be arrogant enough to think they were the best team in the league.  It's about revving up that performance engine just like they revved it down a week ago.  It's about finding the right kind of habits again instead of giving in to the wrong kind.  It's not like years have passed since the last time the Lakers appeared dominant.  Win a couple games to close out the season, take care of business with relative ease in the first two rounds of the playoffs, and the Lakers will once again be labeled as the team to beat, seeds and home court be damned.  It's about communication to the rest of the league that the last five games were the blip on the radar, not the 18 games that preceded it.

Tonight's contest is against the San Antonio Spurs.  I have no idea what kind of motivational state they are in, and without that knowledge, analysis of tonight's contest is pointless.  On the one hand, the Spurs likely need to win both of their games to beat out Chicago for the top overall seed in the playoffs.  Chicago is a game back, but they own the tie breaker, by virtue of a stronger record against the opposite conference (the two teams split their head-to-head games).  On the other hand, to have strong feelings about home court edge in the NBA Finals is to be looking far, far ahead of things, and that strikes me as a very un Popovichian thing to do.  The Spurs playoff run will be rough.  The gods have been kind enough to the Spurs to let the Hornets fall to the 8th spot, setting SA for as easy a first round matchup as can be had out west, but that is where the kindness ends.  For my money, the two toughest teams in the Western Conference besides the Lakers and Spurs are Denver and OKC, and SA will have to deal with one of them before they get to (presumably) us.  And they have to get through us before it even matters whether or not they have home court over the Bulls, who have to get through a couple tough teams themselves.  That's a long, roundabout way of saying tonight matters for the Spurs on paper, but it wouldn't surprise me in the least if Pop played his main guys 20 minutes and called it a season.

If both teams come to play, and don't shit the bed like they did a couple weeks ago (Spurs) or early in the season (Lakers), well, do you remember the last contest in Staples between these two teams?  It was thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable for (almost) all parties, despite the fact that L.A. ended up on the wrong side of the result by virtue of a last second tip.  It's the type of game for which there should be no shame in losing, because the Lakers were bested by a great team who got a couple of breaks, and those breaks made all the difference.  It's the sad current state of Laker affairs that we must point out the difference between that kind of loss and the other kind, because the Lakers current losing streak involves very few losses for which there is no shame.

Speaking of that streak, the Lakers have lost five straight mainly on account of a horrendous offense.  Five games ago, the Lakers ranked second in the league with a 111.9 offensive rating that would still have them tied for 2nd today.  Now, they rank 7th, at 111.0, and I cannot how (the opposite of) impressive that type of late season movement is.  In the last loss, they finally got the offense back on track, only to see the defense (which has quietly crept up to nearly the top five, even as the Lakers pile up loss after loss) slip up badly.  For me, the offensive progress was much more important than the defensive regression, because a big part of the defensive issue came from guys hitting shots that they can't be counted on to hit.  For one game, at least, the OKC offense was a buzz saw from the inside and the outside, and yet the Lakers were in position to win until the crapfest of turnovers that was the final three minutes.  In the context of the past week, that loss was progress in climbing out of the cesspool.

The next step, the next progression, requires sealing the deal.  The Lakers need to win a game, and then another, to remind themselves what winning feels like.  And then they need to win sixteen more.

Statistic

Lakers

Spurs

RECORD

55-25 (5)

61-19 (1)

NET POINTS PER GAME

6.1 (3)

6.0 (4)

PACE

90.7 (21)

92.3 (14)

OFFENSIVE RATING

111.0 (7)

111.9 (2)

Turnover Rate (Off.)

0.124 (3)

0.129 (9)

FTA/FGA (Off.)

0.227 (13)

0.228 (12)

Free-Throw %

77.6 (7)

76.5 (14)

3PT FGA/FGA (Off.)

0.220 (16)

0.260 (6)

3PT% (Off.)

35.3 (17)

39.9 (1)

Effective FG% (Off.)

50.2 (10)

52.9 (1)

True Shooting% (Off.)

54.5 (11)

56.9 (3)

Off Rebounding Rate

0.296 (3)

0.250 (20)

DEFENSIVE RATING

104.4 (6)

105.4 (11)

Turnover Rate (Def.)

0.129 (20)

0.127 (23)

FTA/FGA (Def.)

0.181 (1)

0.187 (2)

3PT FGA/FGA (Def.)

0.246 (27)

0.196 (3)

3PT% (Def.)

33.5 (3)

36.8 (23)

Effective FG% (Def.)

47.8 (5)

49.1 (10)

True Shooting% (Def.)

51.5 (2)

52.8 (8)

Def Rebounding Rate

0.723 (22)

0.746 (10)

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