- David Thorpe, ESPN Staff Writer
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Conventional wisdom suggests that in the NBA, adjustments made during the game by one side or the other often prove to be the difference in the game. But there is another side to this theory that coaches preach to their players: How you start is how you finish. Game 4 started with a Pau Gasol offensive rebound, and it finished with the Lakers' getting the win on the strength of 13 offensive rebounds and 20 second-chance points in the first half. Sure, there are many adjustments that coach Gregg Popovich will implement before Game 5, but his biggest challenge will be getting the Spurs to start the game with the energy and "beast mentality" the Lakers showed in San Antonio. He must convince his guys that they can pull off the mini-miracle and win this series. Without that belief, the Spurs are dead.
The Lakers didn't just give great effort on the offensive glass. Their defense in general reached a new level of intensity as well. We discussed here after Game 3 that the Spurs went to far more handoff plays for Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, to great success. But in Game 4, L.A.'s defenders worked harder at bumping their man as he went toward the post player, and then chased him hard. Or they simply went below the screen and then closed out the guard with discipline. The result of that effort was that San Antonio's offensive rhythm in general was somewhat derailed. And in what might have been the game's most important play, Kobe's pressure on a high handoff gave him a steal and an explosive dunk. The Spurs should expect similar activity from L.A. on these actions, and they need to be more pragmatic in reading them. Because of the big hole they started in, the Spurs seemed rushed too often in their offensive sets. Taking quicker shots than normal and forcing shots when they normally would make the extra pass were all results of this. That, as much as anything the Lakers did, contributed to the Spurs' 40 percent field goal shooting and 29.7 percent from 3-point range.
That big first-quarter deficit, 14 points with five minutes left in the quarter, really set the stage for the game. The Spurs' overall play reached a "frantic" level in many instances, not a good look for them. Considering their 3-1 deficit and realizing what another loss means, they will be dealing with similar feelings in L.A. Handling that emotion by channeling it into smart and steady play is the medicine the Spurs need. To win Game 5, they might have to go to a "ground game," slowly grinding things out by taking their time with each half-court possession. Of course, if Manu plays as poorly as he has in every game save one, the Spurs will be lucky to reach 80 points with this approach. There are no easy answers for Popovich.
San Antonio played smart defense, once again, on Kobe. Limiting his half-court drives by playing off him and always choosing to make a move toward the rim (instead of to him) when defending his actions. He finished with no free throws and scored 28 points on 29 shots. In theory, it was a job well done. But in reality, because he had no trouble getting his jump shot, he was able to hit a couple of the biggest shots of the game, when the Spurs twice cut the lead to two in the last quarter. He might have been shut out from the line, but at no time did he appear to be pressing. The Spurs might look to change that in Game 5, sacrificing some free throws to establish themselves physically. They can't have it both ways -- be the enforcers without sending Kobe to the line numerous times.
Popovich went to Brent Barry early in Game 4, recognizing the need for the pure shooting he provides. Barry delivered, going 5-for-12 from 3, so L.A. might employ a different rotation if he gets more playing time. The Lakers treated Barry as a shooting threat equal to the other Spurs players, running off him to close out another. This time they might stay with him and bring help from somewhere else. Barry is capable of being a difference-maker.
L.A. played a dangerous game with Tim Duncan, constantly surrounding him with bodies and challenging him to make tough shots, while giving him easy angles to pass out to open teammates. But the strategy worked, as Duncan constantly had his shot contested and yet kept trying to score from tough angles or in tough positions. His 26 field goal attempts represent the second-most field goals he has attempted this postseason and, more alarmingly, this season. The normally business-like TD was in the same frantic mode as his teammates, forcing up shots while jumping into a defender, searching for a call. I'd expect him to settle down in Game 5 and, if faced with a similar defensive strategy, make more easy passes and look to make short jumpers without trying to draw a call. Those opportunities were there in Game 4.
The Lakers will look to keep their impressive combination of intensity and precision going, playing with great passion while reading and reacting to whatever the Spurs throw at them. They have numerous players playing well and are sharing the ball and exploiting matchups as often as they present themselves. Phil Jackson has successfully convinced his guys that more energy is the answer to this series, and they have responded. He'll have a similar challenge in Game 5, exhorting his younger guys that the Spurs are champions who will play Game 5 much harder than they started with in Game 4. Any lack of effort by the home team could spell trouble, so look for L.A. to maintain its defensive intensity. Unless Manu can find his game, L.A. has no real adjustments to make. Should he get hot, like in Game 3, L.A. has to be quick to find him and be willing to sacrifice someone else to take the shot. The Lakers will post Luke Walton on him, too, working to keep him out of the flow of the game.
This series reminds me of the Suns-Spurs Round 1 duel. Phoenix had two great chances at winning games but failed to do so, and lost, 4-1. The Spurs gave up a 20-point lead in Game 1 in L.A., and feel they should have won Game 4 (not even factoring in the Derek Fisher no-call in the last seconds). With big hearts, the Spurs have the talent to get a road win and extend their season. But the magic they had going into this series is basically gone, grabbed by Kobe and his teammates. The Lakers are in complete control of their game and their emotions, and are the better team.
PREDICTION: Lakers win Game 5
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.
2dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann