On a night where Kobe Bryant was brilliant and the best player on the floor, it was the Spurs and a great play design by Greg Popovich that was the difference at the end.
With the Lakers up by a single point with 19 seconds left, the Spurs inbounded the ball in the back court and walked the ball up with Tony Parker.
When he crossed half court he passed the ball to Tim Duncan who then handed the ball off to Kawhi Leonard. After giving the ball up, Duncan slid down the right lane line and set another screen for Danny Green who had just set a pick for Stephen Jackson along the baseline. Green popped free outside the three point line, got the pass in rhythm, and knocked down the jumper as Kobe couldn’t get out to him in time.
With the Lakers now trailing they had their own shot to win but couldn’t come up with nearly as creative a play to get off a good shot. Pau Gasol got the inbound in the corner, looked for Kobe to break open, and when it didn’t happen he fired up a three pointer of his own that bounced harmlessly off the rim. Ball game, Spurs.
While the final possessions will get most of the attention, this game was about much more than those last 20 seconds.
The Lakers fought hard in looking to get their third straight win. If they’d played this hard for Mike Brown, he still might be pacing the Lakers’ sidelines. Instead, Bernie Bickerstaff benefitted from the defensive effort to stifle the Spurs’ offense (San Antonio shot 38.9% from the floor) and the board work his team provided (the Lakers outrebounded the Spurs 48-38) to give his team a shot to win the game.
The Spurs also played well on defense and that’s reflected in the 84-82 final score. San Antonio crowded the paint and dared the Lakers to hit shots form the outside. But when the Lakers had trouble hitting their jumpers, it only encouraged the Spurs to double team the Lakers’ big men more. Dwight Howard (6 turnovers) struggled with the extra defensive attention and Pau Gasol couldn’t hit enough shots (3-10 from the floor, 10 points) to make the defense pay for leaving him open.
That led to Kobe Bryant having the carry the Lakers’ offense and he did a fine job of it. Kobe hit 12-19 shots from the floor to score 28 points (chipping in 8 assists too) and did a great job of breaking down the Spurs defense all night. Multiple defenders got their shot at Kobe but one by one he mowed them down with an array of drives and made jumpers that had Greg Popovich frustrated and his Lakers’ teammates celebrating from the bench.
It wasn’t enough, though. In the second half the Spurs clamped down on defense and started to pressure the ball more and force the Lakers to use up the shot clock and take tougher shots. They started to blitz ball handlers coming off the pick and roll while flooding the strong side with extra defenders. The Lakers needed to knock down jumpers when the ball was swung to the opposite side but simply couldn’t do it.
And in the end, this was the difference. The Spurs found a way to keep the game close through effective defense and timely shot making. In the second half, they found enough scoring (Tim Duncan scored 12 of his 18 points in the final 24 minutes while Stephen Jackson’s two 3 pointers were also big shots) and hung close. Meanwhile, the Lakers couldn’t get the stops they needed nor hit the big basket that could have given them the separation to outlast their opponent.
So the Spurs improve their record to 7-1 and remain at the top of the western conference alone. The Lakers, meanwhile, can’t get to .500 and can only stew over a game they could have won while they wait for their new head coach to arrive later this week.