Standing in Lakers' way? The Spurs
The Lakers' ultimate test -- again -- will be their ability to beat the Spurs
When the Lakers go to San Antonio to play the Spurs in their Sunday matinee, it figures to be a dress rehearsal for a marquee playoff matchup.
Because if the Lakers are going to make it to the Finals for the fourth straight year, you have to figure that the Spurs will be there standing in their way.
For all of the attention paid to the Lakers' three-peat bid, the Heat's budding Big Three, the Celtics' last hurrah, the Magic's search to surround Superman with help, the Knicks landing Carmelo Anthony and the Bulls' blossoming Derrick Rose; this has been the Spurs' year.
San Antonio's season has been a microcosm of the remarkable consistency the franchise has shown in the last decade and a half since Tim Duncan and coach Gregg Popovich formed their bond. The Spurs have three winning streaks of eight games or longer this season, while losing consecutive games just once (a two-game losing streak on the road in New York and Boston in early January). They have the best record in the league at 51-11, the best home record at 29-2 and the second-best road record at 22-9.
Once the Spurs seized the baton as having the best record in the West, they've continued to pump their arms and legs without looking over their shoulders at the Lakers trailing behind them. They lead L.A. by 7.5 games with only 20 games to play.
The Spurs do not seem susceptible to an early-round upset, meaning they'll ride that No. 1 seed in the West all the way to home-court advantage in the conference finals, where the Lakers would have to unseat them.
The Spurs have long been a measuring stick for the Lakers to size up against. Since the start of the 1998-99 season the Lakers and Spurs have played 77 games against each another, regular season and playoffs combined, and the series stands 39-38 in favor of San Antonio.
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Despite the close connectivity of the two teams, they've played only one playoff series against one another in the last three years. The Kobe Bryant-Pau Gasol edition of the Lakers made their first Finals together by beating San Antonio in the 2008 Western Conference finals 4-1.
It was a strange series that saw L.A. win Game 2 by 30 and lose Game 3 by 19. All the while Manu Ginobili was playing on an ankle in such bad shape that Sasha Vujacic was getting credit for shutting the Argentinean down with his defense.
Barring any major injury to either team, this should be the year when the Lakers-Spurs rivalry gets the classic playoff series to define it. Bryant and Duncan are in the dusks of their storied, MVP-laden careers. Phil Jackson is in his last stand and Popovich has been his one contemporary who can claim to be in the same realm when it comes to sustained excellence in the regular season followed by multiple championships. The rest of their rosters are balanced and deep, equipped to handle another title run.
"It's a good chance of it," Shannon Brown said of a potential Alamo-Hollywood showdown in the postseason. "We can't continue to give them confidence to know that they can come out and they can play with us and they can beat us. When we go in there Sunday it's going to be a dogfight."
The Spurs have taken the first two games of their four-game season series with the Lakers and both results were wake-up calls for L.A. After the Lakers lost in San Antonio 97-82 on Dec. 28, in a game in which Bryant missed 13 shots in a row at one point, L.A. went on to win nine of its next 10 with Bryant playing a more balanced approach on offense. After Antonio McDyess' tip-in at the buzzer lifted the Spurs to an 89-88 win in Los Angeles on Feb. 3, the Lakers refocused to rebound and win four straight, including one on the road against the Celtics.
The Lakers are coming off an uninspiring 92-84 win against Charlotte on Friday, while the Spurs thrashed Miami by 30 points as Tony Parker returned from a calf injury after missing only two games when his initial timetable called for him to miss 2-4 weeks.
"If we play Sunday like we did [against the Bobcats], we're not going to be in the contest, there's no doubt about that," said Jackson. "But we find a way against that team, we find a way to play against them and we'll compete."
Jackson called his team's four-game road trip starting in San Antonio and continuing through Atlanta, Miami and Dallas the "make-or-break point" of the Lakers' season. Starting things off with a loss to the Spurs and getting swept in the season series could leave the Lakers' championship aspirations looking pretty broken.
Because, sooner or later, if Tinseltown is to become Title Town once again this June, the Lakers will simply have to beat the Spurs.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.