Is there anybody that watched the last two Lakers wins and thinks they are not the best team in the West? Anyone who thinks their team can beat the Lakers over seven game series?
Maybe that team in Utah that thinks they have a chance, but they can’t feel terribly comfortable right now. Last night the Lakers used good defense to spark a fast start — plus a crucial dagger three from Kobe Bryant late — to defeat the San Antonio Spurs 102-95. The win coupled with the Phoenix Sun’s loss to Cleveland gives the Lakers the Pacific Division title with 17 games remaining in the regular season.
The conventional wisdom is that the Spurs are the only team in the West that can really challenge the Lakers, but conventional wisdom took a beating when the Spurs looked like a team that couldn’t stop or score with Los Angeles.
Early on the Lakers thwarted Spurs All Star guard Tony Parker with aggressive trapping defense off picks, often with new starter Tevor Ariza, forcing Parker to give up the ball and even having a couple of turnovers. The length of Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom bothered Tim Duncan, who scored 16 points on 13 shots for the evening. Even though Spurs coach Greg Popovich has gone to more of an offensive lineup this season, the other players could not step up and the Lakers raced out to an 18 point lead by the end of the first quarter.
On offense, the Lakers attacked the Spurs in the paint, outscoring the Spurs by 18 points there and getting 34 points on the night on layups (compared to 18 for San Antonio). The Lakers also attacked with whomever Matt Bonner was covering — Popovich ended up sitting Bonner midway through the third quarter for the rest of the game as he could not slow Lamar Odom. By going with a more offensive-minded lineup, the Spurs had few answers on defense and the ones they did have involved a 37-year-old Bruce Bowen, All of which is a question the Lakers answered last year in the playoffs.
Kobe and Gasol led the way with 23 each — Kobe’s jump shooting continued to be on fire just like the night before in Houston — and all the Lakers starters finished in double figures.
It was the Lakers bench that tried to give the game back. Jordan Farmar, Luke Walton and Josh Powell were a combined -20 on the night As soon as they were inserted in the second quarter, the Spurs went on a 14-3 run. In the third quarter it was an 8-3 run. But that time they bounced back on their own, sparked by four straight points by Josh Powell.
The Spurs made one more late run at a Lakers team that was starting to look tired, getting back within two at 93-95. Then Kobe hit a clutch three with 1:46 left and the Lakers held on for the win.
Spurs fans will point to the fact they were without Manu Ginobili. But the Lakers were without Andrew Bynum — and it is he that looks closer to returning. Bynum ran on a treadmill Thursday and is increasing his physical activity, making it look even more likely that he will be back for the playoffs.
And that is really going to put Los Angeles over the top in the West.
Kurt Helin's crossover dribble was good enough to land him a desk job, from where he started Forum Blue & Gold.