Pau Gasol returns to Staples Center on Friday night, as the Spaniard's San Antonio Spurs come to Los Angeles and provide the LA Lakers their toughest challenge of the young season.
"In my opinion, they're the most professional team there is in this league," Lakers coach Walton spoke about the challenge of facing the Spurs after Thursday's practice. "Any wasted possessions against them, they chew that up with their defense. If we don't know what play we're in or we're not executing cutting hard, setting hard screens they'll take full advantage of that."
Walton continued, "On the other end, they're going to continue to move the ball and run their plays and set hard screens so whether we get up on them or we get down on them, they're going to just keep playing the same way. It's impressive that they can do it every single night no matter who their opponent is, but it's a great challenge for us."
The Lakers have won seven of their first 12 games of the season, which is good enough for the fifth best record in the Western Conference. However, the next five games against the Spurs, Chicago Bulls, Oklahoma City Thunder and two meetings with the Golden State Warriors offer a grueling stretch that will impugn the Lakers' record. Though four of the next five games come at home, Walton's men would deserve a pat on the back if they manage even two wins in that set.
Without looking too far ahead, LA has to first worry about the San Antonio Spurs on Friday. San Antonio is off to 9-3 start and comes into Staples Center riding a four-game winning streak. While Gasol may be the most recognizable Spur on Friday night due to his history and stature in the building, San Antonio is Kawhi Leonard's team.
Born in Los Angeles, Leonard attended high school in Riverside before moving down south to San Diego State for college. Along with being the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard is shooting over 40 percent from three-point land for the second consecutive season. In addition, the 25-year-old is averaging 25.0 points per game, which is on pace to be a career-high and currently ranks 12th in the NBA.
If the Spurs continue collecting wins and Leonard continues to shine offensively, the former San Diego State Aztec Warrior should be in the conversation for Most Valuable Player. Leonard only scored 30 or more points three times during the 2015-16 regular season. Only 12 games into the 2016-17 season, he has already tallied 30 or more points four times.
For the Lakers, rookie Brandon Ingram continues to turn heads on the defensive side of the ball with his length. Likely matching up against Leonard at times, Friday night should be yet another educational experience for the 19-year-old.
If the Spurs do have a weakness, it comes at the point guard position due to 34-year-old Tony Parker slowing down and playing fewer minutes than ever before. However, Parker enters Friday's game on the back of three straight double-digit scoring games.
Still, LA should look to second-year point guard D'Angelo Russell to get the home team off to a fast start if the Lakers hope to topple the Spurs. Russell hit his first five shots, all three-pointers, during the first quarter of the Lakers' victory over the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday. The former Ohio State Buckeye went on to score 32 points, which was a season high, on 20 field goal attempts, which tied a season high.
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In order to beat or even compete with the Spurs, Russell will have to be on his game Friday night. Tip-off is 7:30 p.m. Pacific Time.