- David Thorpe, ESPN Staff Writer
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These two teams may be the best in basketball, based on their playoff performances and the level of competition they had to beat. Denver won 50 games, and the Lakers swept them. After Phoenix played well late in the season with Shaq, some "experts" picked the Suns to win the title, but they lost to the Spurs in five. Round 2 saw L.A. beat a true title contender -- including a series-clinching win in Game 6 on the court of the league's best home team, the Utah Jazz. The Spurs one-upped L.A. by winning a Game 7 on the road against New Orleans, clawing back from a 2-0 series deficit to win four of the last five games against a truly outstanding team. Both teams are playing their best basketball, and they match up very well.
The Spurs are such a balanced team, getting slashing from their guards, shooting from their wings, and almost everything from their Hall of Fame power forward. In the playoffs, their guards are also shooting well, and their role players are all plugged into the right spots. They can change lineups without a hiccup and often get better play from these different looks.
The Lakers are revved up on offense as well, with their own Hall of Fame player doing a lot of everything. In fact, Kobe Bryant is having a terrific postseason, perhaps even topping his own MVP regular season. His willingness to blend in with the team as often as possible has made L.A. almost impossible to defend.
The Lakers will be challenged to defend San Antonio's excellent ball-screen game. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili come roaring off those screens, dragging the screener's defender across the lane and creating not one but two mismatches on the floor. If the defender hedges strong too early, both Parker and Ginobili can split the screen and get into the teeth of the defense. Trapping the ball handler has its risks, as both guys can beat the double and play five-on-three, or make the easy pass for a quick ball swing and an open shot. Both guys are also great at the mid-range game, so playing off them is dangerous.
Defending Tim Duncan is equally tough, as the Spurs will play four-around-one and let TD go to work, with excellent spacing and good shooters if the Lakers double. There are reports that Pau Gasol can defend TD without help, but they are mostly false. Should L.A. try to squeeze TD early or late in the possession, the Spurs can go to their high-low passing game with Fabricio Oberto, who can feed Duncan next to the basket before help can arrive.
The Lakers will create just as many problems for San Antonio's tough defense, by pushing the pace in search of quick but open shots. This is one way the Lakers' players other than Kobe can make offensive contributions. Good fast breaks depend on mobile bigs, and L.A. has two of the best in Gasol and Lamar Odom. Both are highly skilled, and Odom is playing perhaps his best ball of his career. They are equally dangerous in the half-court set, utilizing the triangle to get easy shots for players who are being defended by guys quick to help on or rotate toward Kobe. Gasol is too good to be ignored even for a moment, and he can hurt the Spurs on the glass if they don't recover to box him out.
Like San Antonio, the Lakers have shooters primed and ready to launch if the defense is too focused on their inside players or Kobe anywhere on the floor. Kobe is the best perimeter player on the floor by a good margin, but neither Utah nor Denver had two guys able to defend him as well as Bruce Bowen and Ime Udoka. Neither can shut him down, but they can force him into poor shooting nights while not fouling too much.
Parker: Parker was not as sensational against New Orleans as he was in the Phoenix series, but he was still very good. Against the Hornets, Parker averaged 19.4 points on 48.6 percent shooting, drawing lots of help when he came off ball screens. He's 6-for-13 in the postseason from the 3-point line, making it even tougher to defend him -- although he did not attempt a single 3-pointer in four games against the Lakers this season. He did average 20.7 points against them, and should be able to penetrate on Fisher without needing a ball screen. Parker -- the Finals MVP last season -- has the look of someone who understands he is one of the game's truly elite players.
Fisher: One of the real heroes of Round 2, Fisher averaged more than 14 points on 57 percent shooting against Utah. And his long-range accuracy (11-for-17 from 3, 64.7 percent) made the Jazz pay for their extra attention on Kobe and Pau. He got roasted a lot by Deron Williams, but made up for a good portion of it by grabbing 3.5 steals per game -- more than three times his season average. He'll need to do the same on Parker, who's quicker with the ball than D-Will.
Ginobili: The Spurs inserted Ginobili into the starting lineup when they were reeling early in the second round, and he responded with a major contribution to the overall victory. He scored 97 points in their four wins, putting up team-leading point totals of 25 and 26 in their final two wins. Manu also dished out 4.5 assists per game in the series. He will be asked to play a similar role against L.A. His mid-range game will be huge against L.A.'s shot blockers inside. Coach Gregg Popovich may elect to bring Manu off the bench in order to counter what has been a strong Lakers bench for most of the season. Ginobili is often the biggest difference maker for the Spurs, and he's likely to do it again in this series.
Bryant: Bryant maintained his premium performance level in Round 2, pouring in 33.2 points on just 19.3 shots per game. He attacked the rim with vehemence and shot an astounding 96 free throws. Most importantly, he supplied great guidance and leadership in a pointed effort to keep his teammates engaged. He'll have a tougher time against the Spurs, who defend him as well as anyone does. He only averaged 24.3 points a game against them this season. But Kobe is still the giant X factor in this series: He's the player most capable of carrying his franchise to the Finals.
Bowen: Bowen played beautifully against New Orleans on both sides of the floor: He shot 37.2 percent from 3 and made some clutch shots, while his defense on Peja Stojakovic was perhaps the difference in the series. All eyes will be on him to see what he can do against Kobe. He's played extremely well in the four games against the Lakers, shooting an amazing 80 percent from 3. He gets energy on offense from his performances on defense.
Radmanovic: Against Utah, Radmanovic shot the ball better -- from all over the court -- than he did in the first round. He shot 9-of-22 on 3s in the series (40.9 percent) and nailed 2-of-3 in the huge Game 6 clincher. On the other side of the floor, he struggled to defend on and off the ball against Utah's precision offense. He must be aware of Bruce Bowen spotting up for the corner 3.
Duncan: No player is happier to get away from the Hornets than Duncan. He averaged just 15.3 points on 42 percent shooting in the series. Sometimes the Hornets doubled him early, sometimes late, and other times they just left him to work one-on-one against Tyson Chandler. The different defensive looks served to really disrupt Duncan's rhythm. The Lakers may try a similar tactic, but they have no one as good as Chandler to play TD straight-up. Duncan was clutch from the free-throw line against the Hornets, making 12 of his last 14, including all six of his attempts in Game 7. L.A. did a good job on Duncan during the season, as he averaged only 16.3 points.
Odom: Odom is another Lakers player who played brilliantly at times against Utah. He scored 18.2 points a game on 58.7 percent shooting and grabbed 11.7 boards a game. His offensive aggressiveness was a major key to the series, as Odom shot 47 free throws (7.8 per game) after shooting just 4.2 per game during the season. He averaged only 13.8 points and got to the line just 3.8 times per game against San Antonio this season. He needs to be ultra-aggressive to take some pressure off Gasol inside. If the Lakers are to win, it is likely that Odom will have to continue his excellent play.
Oberto: Oberto earned his starting job back midway through the series against New Orleans, thanks to his excellent ability to pass the ball in the interior to Duncan. Oberto does not finish with much physicality, so he may struggle to score against the Lakers' lengthy defenders. His biggest challenge will be to contain Odom, who is playing excellent basketball.
Gasol: Gasol was good, but not great, in the second round, partly due to the attention Utah showed him. His averages of 18.5 points and 8.3 rebounds per game were nearly identical to his regular season work. He'll likely need to step it up a notch in the Western Conference finals. His excellent activity on the offensive glass (3.5 per game) showed that he's not just a finesse scorer. But he's not been a great rebounder in his four games versus the Spurs, having grabbed 6.3 per game. The Lakers need him to do better than that so they can start their break.
Finley averaged only 7 points per game in Round 2, but he made both of his 3-point shots at key times for the Spurs in Game 7. If he starts in this series, his ability to defend the unreliable but capable Radmanovic will be important. And for the Spurs to pull out a series win, it is likely that Finley will have to make some big shots.
Whether he starts or comes off the bench, Thomas will have to make some pick-and-pops to open up angles for Parker and Ginobili on ball screens. His defense on Pau or Odom will be key as well, so he must sprint the floor in defensive transition.
Horry did not do much in the second round, other than setting a hard screen on David West and his sore back. But Horry will probably factor into at least one big play in this series. If he can make a few 3s, it could change the dimension of the game.
Udoka may have been the most unsung hero of the second round, hitting 12-of-23 3-pointers. He will supplant Bowen as a "Kobe stopper" when Bowen is resting -- a challenging defensive assignment that could hinder his red-hot shooting.
Walton's production dropped considerably from Round 1 to Round 2: He went from averaging 14 points per game to just 5 points per game. His problem was very poor shooting, as he went just 9-of-26 from the field. However, he could be a difference maker if his rhythm returns.
Farmar had a disastrous series in the second round, scoring just 1.7 points on 13 percent shooting from the floor. He did average 10 points in four regular season games against the Spurs, and he needs to produce similar numbers this time around.
His numbers are very small, but his production normally outweighs the statistics. His defense on Duncan will be a key to the series, especially if Gasol gets in foul trouble.
Vujacic scored in double figures in four of six games against Utah, averaging 9.3 points on excellent 3-point shooting (9-for-21, 42.9 percent). But he's more than just a shooter, and the Lakers need him to bring energy and passion to their second unit. He is a solid performer against the Spurs.
The Spurs showed they can really run against Phoenix and New Orleans, but they are pragmatic and can play a slower game very well. The Lakers are not quite as fortunate, in that they require more of a running game to be most effective. However, the Spurs offense has been much more potent lately when Parker pushes the pace, so a faster and entertaining series is much more likely now, rather than if these teams were playing two seasons ago. Both teams possess sky-high confidence and play with real purpose every night. On paper, I think the Spurs are the slightly inferior team (just as I felt about them compared to New Orleans in Round 2).
The Lakers are probably the best team in basketball: They combine outstanding offensive talents with an excellent system, and feature long, aggressive and smart defenders who are very well coached by Phil Jackson & Co. But the Spurs are also expertly coached, and they play with no fear of losing their crown. Little bothers them, including starting out in a 2-0 series hole. Sometimes we have to look past the records, past the stars, and notice when a team seems to be "destined" for a title. Starting with Duncan's clutch 3-point prayer in Game 1 of Round 1, this team has had that look.
Prediction: San Antonio 4, Los Angeles 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.
2hMichael C. Wright