LOS ANGELES — In the end, the Spurs were the Spurs.
They executed, they played smart, they moved the ball and found the open man/mismatch, they were disciplined, and when the defense made things difficult LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard (23 points a piece) hit the shot anyway. That’s what they do.
But the Lakers did not make it easy Friday night.
Los Angeles, the biggest surprise team in the NBA this season, started off a brutal stretch of their schedule showing the kind of fight any coach can respect.
“Luke’s (Walton) done a great job of making them believe and playing aggressively, and you can really see it,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “They came back and stuck it to us… We got after it and executed better, but I am just so impressed with what he has done with this group.”
“I thought we did a good job of fighting,” said Lakers’ forward Julius Randle. “A decent job of executing. It’s just any mistake that you make on the defensive end, they’re going to make you pay.”
In each half, the Spurs starters would pull away to a comfortable double-digit lead in the first 10 minutes, and in each half the Lakers bench sparked a comeback that made things interesting Friday night at Staples Center. Los Angeles got 57 points from its bench on the night, the Spurs 28.
“We just compete,” Jordan Clarkson said of the Laker bench. “You know we get some stops during those times. We’re pushing the ball and getting easy buckets in transition.”
When it was getting tight late the Spurs did the things they always do — they destroy opponents’ runs by just making shots — and San Antonio got the 116-107 win. There may be no moral victories, but a season ago the Lakers would have rolled over in a game like this. No more. These Lakers are learning and they are gaining respect along the way.
“They’re talented, they’re playing hard — it looks like they want to play hard for Luke, and they play with a lot of energy and they have great pieces…” said Spurs point guard Tony Parker. “I give them credit. In the first half we had a good lead, they came back. They played physical, they got into us, they created turnovers, and in the second half we had to play a lot better, a lot smarter, and cut our turnovers to win the game.”
Los Angeles has a rough stretch coming up the next couple weeks — including a home-and-home with the Warriors — but they looked like a team that can compete through that stretch (and they need to if they are serious about their playoff dreams).
The Lakers’ core needs to step up like it did on Friday. Julius Randle bullied former Laker Pau Gasol at times, going right at him in transition (that got harder when the Spurs moved Aldridge onto Randle, people underestimate how big and strong Aldridge is and Randle could not push him around).
“It was good for him, going against Pau and Aldridge, two of the best in the game,” Luke Walton said of Randle. “I thought he did a good job, he still needs to do better doing his work early, especially against players that talented. Julius has the belief and strength to fight and defend bigger players.”
Los Angeles played without point guard D’Angelo Russell who was out with left knee soreness and will be re-evaluated Sunday. That meant this was a duel of older European point guards — Tony Parker vs. Jose Calderon.
Los Angeles missed Russell’s shot creation and attacking the rim in the half court. Combine that with the always-executing Spurs defense and the Lakers were just 6-of-22 shooting in the first quarter, had just two points in the paint, turned the ball over five times, and trailed 26-16. And the game didn’t feel that close.
Then in the second quarter, the Laker bench picks up the energy, gets a few stops, goes on an 8-0 run and cuts the lead to five, forcing Popovich to call a couple of timeouts. And get David Lee out of the game. But the Lakers had gained some confidence and the shots were falling — particularly for Nick Young, who had 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting in the first half alone (22 for the game). The Lakers were pushing the pace and attacking in the half court, getting buckets in the paint.
Los Angeles tried to carry that over to the third quarter, but then a 7-0 Tony Parker run had the Spurs starters back in a groove. The Spurs ran more pick-and-rolls to go at specific mismatches in the second half, and pretty quickly the Spurs were up a dozen. San Antonio hit 11 shots in a row, and put up 39 points on 74 percent shooting in the third, and by the end of the quarter it was 91-76 Spurs.
Tell me if you’ve heard this before, but in the fourth David Lee came in and the Spurs couldn’t get a stop — the Lakers got hot again and the lead got all the way down to five. The Spurs countered going small — Aldridge at the five — and it worked when he picked up a couple of quick buckets. But still there was no quit in these Lakers, and they cut the lead down to five when Nick Young and Jordan Clarkson hit threes while Spurs miss wide open ones on the other end.
However, in the end, the Spurs executed. Like they always do.
The Lakers can learn from that.