Beginning Sunday, the Lakers and Spurs will meet for the 12th time in their decades-long rivalry, their 7th tangle since Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan were drafted. It won't exactly be the meeting of the Western Conference titans, as this is the first time in 25 years that the teams have met in the first round. However, with Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol and Tony Parker assured to be involved, it guarantees to be a hard fought battle and a ratings hit if nothing else.
In preparation for Sunday's tip-off, let's go position-by-position and break down which team, if any, has the advantage. Today, we'll start with the guards.
Starting Point Guard: Steve Nash* vs. Tony Parker
*As of this writing, Nash has stated that he's "hopeful" to play Saturday, which would put him squarely in the starting point guard spot. We're going to work off this assumption.
Three years ago, this was a hoophead's dream match-up. Two hardwood savants whose on-ball wizardry ranked them consistently in the top five point guards in the game. They were different, but same in how deeply they affected their team's pace of game. Nash was more the facilitator, setting up shooters for suddenly wide-open shots and using the pick and roll to deadly efficiency with his big men. On the other side of the court Parker was much more a scorer, destroying interior defenses with an unstoppable tear drop runner and a devastating mid-range game. Neither would be considered much of a defender, but their team-wide defensive schemes more than made up for their lapses.
Moving onto 2013, both men can still function in largely the same capacity, but with injuries dogging them, it's hard to say how effective they'll be all series. Parker missed three weeks in March with a severely sprained ankle, and then games here and there recently with a neck and shin problems. In April, the former All-Star has put together some of the worst games of his season; just 2 points and 4 assists on a 1-6 shooting night in a 100-88 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder and 8 assists and 4 points on 1-10 shooting in a 91-86 loss to the Kobe-less Lakers. Since his return from the sprained ankle, Parker's scored a respectable 16.7 points and dished 7.3 assists, but on 44% shooting and two less shots. With season averages of 20.3 ppg, 7.6 apg on .522 FG%, it's obvious that his slate of injuries is still bothering him.
As bad as it may be for Parker, it's even worse for his cross-court counterpart. Nash has been on the court for 2 minutes in the last 3 1/2 weeks, limited by nerve problems that are affecting his hip and hamstrings. Even when he was on the court, the former two-time MVP hasn't completely been himself. Without Dwight Howard as a willing and able pick and roll partner, much of Nash's game-changing ability has been muted. However, even as his assists are down to a 13 year low, his shooting ability remains elite--just tenths of a percentage point away from another 50/40/90 club appearance. Nash has been listed as "day-to-day", but it could change at any minute depending on how he responds to the multiple epidural shots he's been given. Even if he can get on the court, there's no guarantee that he resembles anything close to the player he's been even this season.
EDGE: This goes to Parker here, but simply by the fact he's played recently. The 2007 Finals MVP hasn't been himself lately, lacking the type of energy and burst we're accustomed to seeing. He should be able to give the Lakers problems even at a diminished state, seeing as LA hasn't been able to stop any point guard from Chris Paul to Luke Ridnour to Jameer Nelson for years now. There's truly no telling what we'll get out of this match-up because both men are playing through injury, if they can go at all.
*Assuming Nash starts, Blake's play figures to put him as the accompanying starting guard. Jodie Meeks would then go to the bench.
I tweeted this during the Houston Rockets game the other night, and I'll reiterate it for the folks at home--Steve Blake has played better over the past three weeks than Steve Nash has played over any three weeks this entire season.
Take that one in.
Blake has been a season savior for the Lakers, proving his worth when the team needed him most. Since Nash went down against the Sacramento Kings, the other Steve has thrown up the following averages: 38.5 mpg, 12.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg (!), 3.7 apg, 2.2 topg, 43% FG, 43.5% 3P and 92.9% FT. Blake has been key to breaking down perimeter defenses, frequently (and some skeptics would say only) making shots with defenders in his face, as well as beating interior offenses with clever screen and roll plays for easy buckets. He's a Jason Kidd-esque rebounder, in that he seems to understand the trajectory of the basketball and always be at the right place at the right time. Blake is still a feisty defender at times, but is extremely prone to leaving his man and over-helping, best exhibited in Friday's game against Golden State when Stephen Curry put together an involuntary shooting clinic for all those in attendance.
Green couldn't be having a much better season given his role on the San Antonio Spurs. The UNC product is putting in 10.5 ppg, most notably with a 42.9% clip from long range. With respect to Matt "Red Mamba" Bonner, Green is the best and most consistent of all of SA's shooters, not to mention a fearless second half gunner (shooting 41% 3P in both the 3rd and 4th quarters). He's solid coming off screens and shooting, as well as a catch and shoot gunner. In almost every sense of the word, Danny Green is the prototypical shooting guard. Defensively, he's a rangy perimeter player that stays within Popvich's scheme, and uses his length (6'6") intelligently to his advantage.
EDGE: All season long, the Lakers have had a lot of difficulties staying with their men on the perimeter, and doing exactly what Blake tends to do: float too much on help and lose track of shooters. Danny Green should have a field day with this at the three-point line and conversely be able to give Blake a ton of trouble operating off ball with such a size discrepancy. However, the Lakers guard is playing with a lot of confidence right now, especially in terms of shooting the ball, so perhaps this will be a much more even match up than it would appear on paper.
Again, the bench unit of the Lakers will be in flux depending on Nash's availability. Meeks could be rotated into the starting line-up, in which case Morris, Duhon and even the re-signed Andrew Goudelock would get time off the bench for a spectacularly subpar reserves unit. Each one of these guards have their strengths and weaknesses, but at this time of the year, none of them (with the exception of Meeks) are playoff-caliber bench players. Goudelock and Duhon can stroke it, but both are weak defenders and would be overmatched by the versatile reserve unit of the Spurs. Morris is the mirror image of his reserve teammates, serving up great man defense (though his youth and inexperience often shows as he'll get lost on pick and rolls or help situations), but not even looking to score at this point.
The Spurs reserve guards are much more well rounded than that of their opponents, regardless of whether Manu Ginobili is at 100%, 50% or not there at all. Neal, de Colo and Joseph are all very capable ball handlers and shooters, although Neal is the only reliable outside threat. He in particular has been a standout in a year where Ginobili and Parker have been absent for long stretches of time, exemplifying the largest strength of Popvich's reserve guards: absolutely zero fear in the face of the spotlight. Whereas Morris, Goudelock and even Jodie Meeks can become wide-eyed when given the burden of responsibility, Neal, de Colo and Joseph rarely seem to shrink from becoming prime-time players when the stars go down. This of course, may be a moot point--de Colo and Joseph might not even get playing time depending on how well Ginobili functions after playing just 12 minutes in April due to a creaky hamstring. Obviously, with a healthy Manu, the bench play isn't even a contest.
EDGE: Clearly in favor of San Antonio, moreseo if Meeks is pressed into starter's duty. The Spurs reserves are versatile, confident and much more sound defensively. They're still reserves, so they'll be prone to shooting slumps and silly turnovers from time to time, but Gregg Popovich isn't the type of coach to stick with unproductive role players. If Neal, de Colo and Joseph begin to falter and Ginobili's performance is hindered by injury, don't be surprised to see Patty Mills or even the newly signed Tracy McGrady serve as back-up guards.
The Bottom Line
Even with Kobe, San Antonio's guards would get the edge here based on depth. The Spurs hold at least six NBA quality players on their roster, including Mills who rarely gets time. As shown by their record and the time missed from Parker and Ginobili, San Antonio has the personnel to weather any injury and strict principles within their defense and offense that can be picked up by anyone on the bench. The Spurs guard corps are a bunch of athletic, mobile, versatile and confident athletes, all in contrast to the Lakers back court who may have to press the limited Morris, Goudelock and Duhon into service after getting very sparing playing time the past few months.
The hope for the Lakers to trump San Antonio's guard production is to hope that Parker and Ginobili are hindered by injury and for the reserves to go through the same type of shooting slumps that led to them losing four in a row to OKC last June in the Western Conference Finals. LA will also need a productive Nash to come forward and nail shots, opening up the inside for Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, as well as for Steve Blake to continue his excellence from the past few weeks. It's a tall task--the Lakers will need to have everything fall into place for their guards to win this positional battle.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino