Lakers 100, Spurs 92
As the Los Angeles Lakers received their trophy as Western Conference champions from Lakers legend Jerry West, the word that came to mind was redemption. Redemption most obviously for Kobe Bryant, who led his team to the NBA Finals for the first time since the Lakers traded away Shaquille O'Neal and opted to build around Bryant. Redemption for Pau Gasol, maligned in Memphis just a few months ago and miscast as the go-to guy with the Grizzlies, but such a perfect fit as the inside complement to Bryant in the triangle.
The sweetest redemption of all might have belonged to Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak, who was congratulated by the legendary talent evaluator he replaced as the team's architect. Though Kupchak presided over championship teams, as well as the 2003-04 Lakers squad that lost to Detroit in the NBA Finals, those teams were essentially constructed by West. In Bryant, Kupchak started with an awfully good building block, but once his vision came together with the addition of Derek Fisher, the development of the Lakers' young players and ultimately the Gasol trade, this became a great team.
The San Antonio Spurs, for all their heart, for all their resiliency, never got there. With their season on the line, the Spurs came out with a strong start. The threes were falling early, and San Antonio ran up a 28-15 lead after one quarter. However, the Spurs could not sustain it. The Lakers cut the lead to six at the break with an 11-2 run to close the first half. By the end of the third quarter, Los Angeles had caught and passed San Antonio.
When Tony Parker got to the hole for a layup with 4:26 left, it was just a two-point game, the Spurs very much in it on the scoreboard. However, it never felt like San Antonio was going to win. In particular, the Lakers had the benefit of "Kyra Sedgwick," as the TNT folks jokingly nicknamed L.A.'s closer, Bryant. He scored on three of the team's next five possessions while the Spurs' offense was silent, allowing the Lakers to put the game away. The degree of difficulty grew progressively higher, with Doug Collins marveling from the sideline at the shots Bryant made.
If this series had lasted any longer, it would be worth creating an auto-text entry about the Spurs keeping Bryant off the line; he attempted five free throws last night, but four of them came in the final minute. Still, it didn't matter. Bryant was 16-of-30 from the field and needed just 34 possessions to get his 39 points. It was the kind of performance that reminds us that while Bryant may not necessarily be the best player in the league, no one is better than Bryant when he is at his best.
As one commenter in the Ball Don't Lie live chat put it, Gasol played the role of Tyson Chandler for the evening. While he was quiet on offense, missing 10 of his 15 shot attempts, Gasol's work on the glass was invaluable. He pulled down 19 boards, a stunning nine of them on the offensive glass, highlighted by a critical second chance with 1:15 left and the Spurs still within five. Add in five assists and four blocks and Gasol had about as good a game as a player can possibly have while shooting so poorly.
The Spurs picked an odd time to get contributions from players besides their big three. Michael Finley knocked down a pair of threes and tied his postseason high with 13 points. Brent Barry threw in three triples and made some big plays for the Spurs. Kurt Thomas, given a chance to play extended minutes for the first time in the series, responded with 11 points and seven boards.
Despite another quiet night from Ginobili, the Spurs' offense was good enough to win, what with Tim Duncan putting together his first playoff triple-double since the 2003 Finals (19 points, 15 boards and 10 assists) and Tony Parker throwing in 23 points. However, most of the damage was done in the early going. Gregg Popovich tightened his rotation, benching Robert Horry and Ime Udoka and using just eight players, and again the Spurs looked worn out down the stretch. Ultimately, the strain of carrying the team for three rounds and a grueling seven-game second-round series caught up with the big three.
Clearly, San Antonio needs to tweak the supporting cast around Duncan, Ginobili and Parker to add some youth and more reliable contributors. With some franchises, you'd worry about overreacting to a down season, but the Spurs have written the book on wisely adjusting the mix. This summer figures to be similar to 2006, when San Antonio made changes to the bench in the wake of an early exit against Dallas, but left the core alone. The changes could be slightly more substantial this time around, but this should still be recognizable as a Spurs team.
That said, the San Antonio front office, so strong during the team's run, has to take the blame for allowing this group to get too stale. In particular, the team's enormous hole behind Parker (with Ginobili emerging as the backup point guard because Jacque Vaughn was untrustworthy in the glare of the postseason) is galling given how well former Spurs first-round pick Beno Udrih played in Sacramento. Part of the argument for rooting for past San Antonio teams was how well their rosters were constructed. This group felt like a well-coached version of a typical NBA contender--three great players surrounded by inferior talent.
The good news for the Spurs going forward is that that type of team is the easiest to improve, because there is ample opportunity for incremental upgrades. The biggest needs, as I see it, are a backup for Parker and a versatile power forward. Parker and Ginobili played too many minutes in the postseason, and a legitimate backup at the point who can get to the paint and create for himself and his teammates would go a long ways towards changing that. Meanwhile, the Lakers exposed San Antonio's inability to match up small at power forward because Horry is well past his prime and Matt Bonner is such a defensive liability. The Spurs need someone 6'9" or 6'10" who is capable of defending athletic players on the perimeter and ideally, like Horry, can stretch the floor at the other end.
As for the Lakers, they stand a strong chance of going into the Finals as favorites despite surrendering home-court advantage to whichever squad advances from the East. The Lakers' 12-3 record in the Western Conference playoffs is better than two of their three most recent championship squads (in the other year, 2001, the Lakers rolled through the West unbeaten at 11-0 before dispatching of the Philadelphia 76ers in five games in the Finals). Meanwhile, Boston has already lost eight games and Detroit six. Depending on the outcome of tomorrow's Game Six, the Lakers might also go into the next series with a clear advantage in terms of rest--which would be the third straight series that has been the case.
We'll have plenty of Finals preview coverage on Basketball Prospectus after the matchup is set, but the Lakers are going to make analysts think at least twice about picking against them.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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