Phil Jackson did not treat this like any other game.
He spent extra time in film preparation for this game, according to ESPN Los Angeles’ Dave Miller (a former Hornet assistant coach).
He sent Kobe Bryant back into the fourth quarter of a blowout, when Kobe usually has ice on his knees. With 3:11 left in the game and the Lakers up 20, he sent Pau Gasol back in from the bench.
Championship teams don’t normally try to send messages in the regular season. Phil Jackson is not usually the message-sending type. But the Lakers clearly felt they needed to and did with an absolute thumping of the San Antonio Spurs, 99-83 (and it wasn’t nearly that close) on national television. After slumps that had some questioning if they were really championship material.
The message — we’re still here and if you want that Larry O’Brien trophy you are going to have to rip it out of our cold, dead hands.
The veteran Spurs heard that message but you can bet were not intimidated. If they meet the Lakers in late May — in the Western Conference Finals — you can bet they will remember Kobe and Gasol in at the end of the game. The Spurs have their motivation, their pride, too.
The actual game itself was a thrashing from the opening tip. The Lakers clearly learned a lot from a similar beat down the Spurs gave the Heat a few nights before. The Lakers defense chased the Spurs off the three-point line all game long. The Spurs were 2-11 from three in the first half.
But the real key to that was Andrew Bynum — the Lakers center controlled the paint. Every time a Spur tried to get a shot off in the lane, he altered or blocked it. Then he got the rebound. That allowed the perimeter defenders to pressure guys at the arc. Pretty soon the Spurs were reduced to what they have reduced other offenses to for so many years — the contested midrange jumper. You don’t win games with that shot.
The Lakers meanwhile played their best game of the season. They ran the offense and it was fluid. They had just two first half turnovers.
The Lakers were up 21 in the first quarter and this was the preverbal boat race. Kobe Bryant had 26 (but needed 25 shots), Pau Gasol had 21 (on 12 shots). The Lakers length was dominant, their bench was solid, every decision they made seemed to be the right one.
The Lakers looked like champions. They looked like a team that has won seven in a row.
You can bet the Spurs will be ready next time. They are champions as well, they know what it takes. But the message has been sent — the Lakers are back and ready to defend their turf.