Scouts Inc. Update: Spurs vs. Lakers, Game 4
No player has been more instrumental to San Antonio's success this postseason than Manu Ginobili. Looking at the statistics from this series, the Spurs play well when Ginobili has his offense in gear. After two very poor games in Los Angeles, Manu broke out in Game 3 with 30 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the 3, and the Spurs rolled to the win. Tony Parker chipped in, too, playing his best game of the series. The Spurs' guard tandem outscored Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher 50-32 -- and Bryant had 30. But if the Lakers want to go back home with a commanding series lead, they better focus on finding a way to make things more difficult for Tim Duncan, too. He finished Game 3 with 22 points, 21 rebounds and five assists. And here is the scary thing: The Lakers played him superbly all game. No one watching this game would have thought Duncan looked sharp. Yet, his numbers were numbing and a sign this series could go the distance.
The Lakers started Game 3 focused on making things difficult for Duncan, whether he had the ball or was playing off it. They refused to guard guys like Michael Finley and Fabricio Oberto, choosing to hang off them and try to clog up the spaces where Duncan was or where he was headed. This opened up shooting opportunities for the Spurs' role players, and they took advantage of it. They shot 5-of-11 from the 3 and 12-of-25 overall (not including the last four minutes). It was a big difference from their Game 2 performance, when they shot 16-of-49.
It is clear the Lakers' length inside bothers Duncan, and their willingness to back off him and challenge him at the rim has thrown off his overall rhythm. He is clanging open shots, and even his best approach, the backboard shot from the angle, has been way off. But Duncan is not just the "Big Fundamental" anymore; rather, he is a true bucket getter. This is where the Lakers have to reassess their strategy for guarding him. Even though they executed the double-team strategy well, Duncan still rang up a 20-20 game. Duncan also picked up five assists and helped bring up the confidence of some players who obviously were lacking in that department after the first two games. The Lakers should look at how the Hornets approached Duncan, doubling and crowding him some games, then playing just one defender on him in others. These methods proved effective in slowing Duncan, but the Hornets still were unable to stop him completely, and they ended up losing the series.
In an effort to create more space for both Duncan and Parker, the Spurs began using many more handoffs and weakside screens in Game 3. These give Parker a bit more speed so he can beat his man before he has the ball. These handoffs also force defensive switches that put pressure on the Lakers' bigs to stay with Parker on ball-screen action. The Lakers' bigs have shown they can stay with him on screens but can't stay with him on a dead run. The Spurs even ran Parker effectively off a simple shuffle cut for a layup.
During their first-round series against the Suns, the Spurs picked them apart the same way they handed the Lakers off to death in Game 3. Defending the Spurs became extremely difficult for the Lakers with the combination of plenty of ball screens and the Spurs' players just feeling it. Look for the Lakers to adjust in Game 4, come up with a more uniform rule for defending ball screens and handoffs, and apply more ball pressure overall. The Spurs must counter this with good spacing, make sure they start the ball at the middle of the floor and be "ball strong" at all times.
The Lakers have to make some offensive adjustments, too. In Game 3, the Spurs dared them to make long shots and tried to take away the driving lanes, especially for Bryant, who threw many jabs but mainly stayed on the perimeter and took jump shots. He finished 13-of-23 from the field and 4-of-9 from the 3. However, he notched only one assist, added four turnovers and, most importantly, took just one free throw, which he missed. The Spurs have been using this recipe all series, but it worked out so well in Game 3 because the Lakers shoot so much more poorly on the road.
Duncan also helped make the night hard for Bryant. Duncan made a hard hedge on Bryant whenever he was directly involved with a ball screen and often switched momentarily onto Bryant. But Pau Gasol sometimes rolled instead of popped on these screens, clogging the lane if his teammate drove. The Lakers should be able to clean this up, either by posting Gasol on the smaller guard or clearing space for Bryant to drive.
The Lakers also must work on maintaining their focus in the third quarter. I think some of their players were lulled into a safety-zone mind-set after forging a two-game lead. This caused the Lakers to take poor shots, and they missed easy defensive assignments. Against this Spurs team, in San Antonio, the margin for error is extremely small. And when Ginobili is making his deep 3s and driving to the rim with creativity and fearlessness, that margin is almost nonexistant. Stopping Ginobili when he's on is almost as hard as stopping Bryant when he's on. It almost can't be done.
The Lakers need to run Ginobili through more screens, find him earlier in transition, force him to defend Bryant more by setting guard-to-guard screens and generally try to exhaust him. But like great players do (Kobe, Duncan ), Ginobili still might get his. And if the Lakers go all out in trying to stop Ginobili or Duncan, Parker is ready to notch his own 30-point game. The Lakers might leave Gasol alone with Duncan, hoping to slow the guards down. This makes the most sense, but it does give Gasol a huge load to handle while trying to fend off foul trouble and still be a huge offensive force.
This game has a chance to be a big Spurs win, shaping up a terrific best-of-three affair. Bryant has the ability to change the face of this game, but he'll have to beat the teeth of this championship team. And this team still has some bite.PREDICTION: Spurs win Game 4
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.
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