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Lakers - Spurs Preview: The Gauntlet begins

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When the NBA first released the schedule for this NBA season, it didn't take long to identify it's toughest stretch.  We've been talking about this four game road trip, travelling across the country to take on most of the league's contenders, since the start of the season, but we had no idea just how tough it would be.  Nobody knew then that the Spurs would appear to be head and shoulders above the rest of the league.  Some suspected that Dallas would make another run at the regular season's best record, but you couldn't be sure.  And while neither team is exceeding expectations, the Atlanta Hawks and Miami Heat are just as dangerous as you'd expect them to be.  The Lakers now get the honor of playing those four teams, on the road, in quick succession.

For a normal team, getting one win out of that gauntlet would be a decent haul.  For a good team, a 2-2 split would be something to hang your hat on.  For the defending champs, who appear to have used the All-Star break to shake off the malaise of the regular season, expectations are a little bit higher.  And they have no one to blame but themselves for the high expectations, because while it would be understandable for the Lakers to lose to any one of these opponents, the team's early season play has put them into a position where doing so would give their opponents undue confidence.  You see, the Lakers have played all of these opponents previously (the Spurs twice), and in those games they are 1-4, with some really embarassing defeats.  So, if the Lakers lose again to the Spurs, the Heat, or the Mavericks, guaranteeing in each case that the other team will hold the edge in the season series, a valuable opportunity for psychological warfare will be lost.

First up is today's matinee opponent, the San Antonoio Spurs.  The Spurs played the Miami Heat on Friday.  In order to properly describe that game, answer the following analogy

Miami Heat : San Antonio Spurs ::
a) Poland : Nazi Germany
b) zombie : flamethrower
c) box of cookies : C.A. Clark
d) all of the above

I don't think I need to tell you which one of those is the right answer.  What the Spurs did to the Heat (who, despite how much you might love to hate them, are a very good team) was insane.  Behind an 8-11 shooting display from three point range, the Spurs tripled up the Heat in the 1st quarter, 36-12.  The carpet bombing continued, as the Spurs ended up with 17 makes on 28 shots.  And Tony Parker, who was supposed to miss 2-4 weeks with a calf injury, somehow recovered after only two games missed to score 15 points and dole out 8 assists.  That, in a nutshell, is the San Antonio Spurs.  Nothing goes wrong for these guys, not this season at least.

That three point barrage wasn't even a rarity, at least, not in the same sense that it would be to the rest of the teams in the league.  Just in the past few weeks, they've gone 13-21 against the OKC Thunder, 13-25 against the Washington Wizards, and 7-14 against the Chicago Bulls.  In other words, no matter who you are, you want no part of playing this team right now.  To put things bluntly, if the Spurs don't take a step back come playoff time, either through injury or the natural order of things, the Larry O'Brien is pretty much theirs.

And that, friends, is why today's game is so important for the Lakers.  This is their chance to be the instrument of that natural order.  A Laker win today, in San Antonio, might just put that seed of doubt into SA's mind, and the Spurs confidence is their biggest weapon right now.  That confidence needs to be dented.  Don't get me wrong, the Spurs are a veteran team, and are not a collection of the weak-minded.  One home loss to their biggest rivals isn't going to turn the tide all by itself.  But, moreso than the Lakers needing to believe they can beat the Spurs, the Spurs need to believe they can lose to the Lakers, and that can't happen unless they, you know, lose.

You know how San Antonio wins, you know what they are capable of.  The Lakers have to take advantage of their lack of size and pound the ball inside.  Kobe Bryant hasn't done the best job over the last couple of working within the offense, and the Lakers desperately need him to do so today.  For what it's worth, the Spurs have always brought out the best in Kobe, both in terms of his standard of play and his style of play, so we have no reason to expect anything other than the perfect blend of facilitation and cold blooded murder.

And for Lamar Odom, I have but one simple request.  Make Matt Bonner think he got a Lamar Odom tattoo over the weekend.  Don't even bother with offense.  Go where Bonner goes, even if the Lakers have the ball.  Do not give him a single ounce of space, because, at this point, I feel like Matt Bonner could drop the ball behind his head, kick it with his back heel, and it would still go in the basket for three points.  You might be thinking that would be illiegal, that Bonner would get called for a kick ball, but the refs would somehow miss the call.  That's how good things are going for the San Antonio Spurs.

It should be a great game, because most games between these two teams are.  The Lakers will surely have some revenge on their mind after the unfortunate loss at the hands of Antonio McDyess' last possible moment tip in to win the last contest at Staples Center, and revenge has been working out pretty well for the team of late.  The Lakers enter with a six game win streak, but I guarantee if they push that streak to seven, it'll take on a whole new meaning.