- David Thorpe, ESPN Staff Writer
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There is little doubt San Antonio's players and coaches will need all the time between Games 1 and 2 to get over their opening-game loss. Being up 20 points in the third quarter typically translates into a win for any team, especially for this incredible Spurs squad. But losing this game was not the worst news for the Spurs; they know they can climb out of holes bigger than this. Rather, what should scare them most is the ease with which Kobe Bryant can pick up himself, and his team, to a playoff win. As noted in the series preview, Bryant is the player most capable of doing just that -- and the Spurs have to do more to keep him somewhat in check. Otherwise, Game 1 might not be the only game in this series that features a Lakers comeback victory.
The Spurs executed their game plan well in the first half of Game 1. And the Lakers didn't. San Antonio got Tim Duncan involved right away, spreading the floor for him and letting him go to work inside. The Spurs also ran some sets for him instead of merely posting him up. When he scored on a simple post-to-post screen, it was evident L.A.'s defenders were not digging in enough on Duncan. They often seemed unaware of where he was. Pau Gasol was guilty of this, once jogging back on defense and not marking Duncan on ball penetration, giving Duncan an easy catch and layin. In games this tight, each bucket is important -- a lesson Phil Jackson will be giving to his team before Game 2.
The Spurs were crisp on offense overall in the first half, making easy passes and handling any Lakers double-teams with patience. Their defense was on as well. Bruce Bowen was very effective denying Kobe important spots on the floor (which, for Kobe, is almost any spot). The Spurs tried to break up L.A.'s offensive rhythm not only by forcing players to go back door, limiting their options out of the triangle, but also by competing to deflect the back-door passes. L.A.'s best offense came from push balls, often with its unique set of power forwards, Lamar Odom and Luke Walton, doing the pushing. The Spurs got caught a few times with bad matchups, and L.A. made them pay with ball reversals and patience. Once, Tony Parker got stuck on Kobe and Michael Finley was on Gasol, leaving Kurt Thomas on Jordan Farmar. The two bigger players went to both posts, with Gasol going away from Farmar to prevent Thomas from switching back to him. The ball was reversed twice, getting back to Farmar with Thomas laying far off him. Farmar stroked the 3-pointer, a much-needed shot for a player slumping from the field. That kind of patience and intelligence is what the Lakers need to solve the Spurs' defense -- and it all came about because of the initial push up the floor.
Kobe did not chase the ball much in the first half, instead allowing his teammates to make plays. And when he did have the ball, he tried not to force anything in favor of getting his teammates good shots. It worked, to a degree, as Vladimir Radmanovic and Gasol were able to get easy baskets.
In fact, the most glaring matchup comparison from Game 1 was the 10 points both Radmanovic and Manu Ginobili scored -- Radmanovic's on 5-for-5 shooting, and Manu's on 3-for-13. Manu playing well was the single biggest factor in the Spurs' four wins over the New Orleans Hornets, and he might be the best indicator of the Spurs' fortunes yet again. It's hard to imagine San Antonio scoring enough points to win a game without much better play from its star two-guard. And if the Spurs see Kobe is delegating early again, they will do a better job of locking down the other Lakers players.
Naturally, the same thinking goes for the Lakers, who were saved when Kobe started working harder to get points. He was incredible in the late-third and fourth quarters, only once scoring an easy jump shot off a pin-down. Everything else came from his bag of offensive talents; he attacked individual defenders and patiently waited for double-teams to dissolve before going to work. It's possible the Spurs won't change their defense much for Game 2, hoping Kobe can't duplicate his Game 1 heroics. He made difficult shots and got to the free-throw line only four times. But of course, Mr. 81 hopes to get those same shots and chances again. He believes he can make those plays every game.
L.A.'s defense in the fourth quarter was just as important as Kobe's offense, limiting the Spurs to just 13 points. In the Spurs' three losses to New Orleans, only once in those 12 quarters did they score fewer than 13 points (11 in the third quarter of Game 5). The Lakers tightened up their ball pressure and were far quicker to rotate and contest shots. Gasol was active in helping on Parker ball screens and then recovering onto Duncan. The Spurs ran their high ball screens, hoping to hit Duncan in the paint, but he was not able to get into scoring position. Deeper ball screens will allow him to find room inside, closer to the rim. If the Lakers' weakside defenders are a step slow to react, Duncan will have a layup, and if not, Fabricio Oberto or Thomas can come up high and play some high-low action. That post-to-post action was their best stuff against the Hornets.
The Lakers' comeback win only served as more fuel for their confidence. This is a team that knows it can find a way to win. But the Spurs are nothing if not resilient. Ultimately, their poor shooting did them in as much as Kobe did. Missing 15 of their 20 3-pointers, the Spurs left 45 points out on the court. Just one more made 3 might have been enough. In the end, this might be the best barometer for the series. And it seems likely the Spurs' shooters will find a better rhythm after a full day's rest and recovery. The problem is, Kobe might find his for a whole game instead of a half.
PREDICTION: Lakers win Game 2
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for ESPN.com and the executive director of the Pro Training Center at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for NBA and college players. To e-mail him, click here.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.
12hSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann