Strong play by Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan. A low-scoring, defensive affair. A narrow result.
This one went the Spurs way, 84-82, thanks to a Danny Green three-pointer with 9.3 seconds left in the game. The Lakers had the last shot, though that shot—a Pau Gasol corner three off the inbounds—was less than ideal for the home team.
It may have been just the eighth game of the season for each of these Western Conference foes, but there was something decidedly playoff-like about it.
And not simply because both sides looked sloppy as each tightened the defensive screws on the other.
The short-lived Bernie Bickerstaff era may be over in L.A., but if this game is any indication, the race for the West has only just begun.
It's tough to figure out what to make of the Spurs so far this season.
On the one hand, they're 7-1 through their first eight games, giving them the best mark in the West. They've shown that they can win by margins large or small, by running up the score or grinding it out.
Clearly, they're an adaptable outfit, with a blend of veteran leadership (Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili) and youthful exuberance (Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter) that makes them a team for all seasons.
On the other hand, two of said squeakers came against the rebuilding New Orleans Hornets and the Portland Trail Blazers, and the latest was a win over a Lakers team starting its third-string point guard and led by an interim coach keeping the seat warm for a guy who just had knee-replacement surgery in New York.
And then there's that 22-point loss to the Clippers, but I s'pose that'll happen from time to time.
Size is going to be a concern all season for the Spurs, unless they make some moves. Duncan is old, Splitter looks lost half the time and DeJuan Blair and Boris Diaw are both overweight and undersized, especially against a big front line like that of the Lakers.
San Antonio will win its fair share of close games (and plenty of blowouts against patsies), but this team still has the look of one that could burn out on the way to title contention, just as it has in each of the previous two seasons.
For now, though, the Spurs will continue to win at a Spurs-like pace so long as Tim Duncan keeps taking swigs from the Fountain of Youth.
Duncan had himself another fantastic game on Tuesday. The 36-year-old future Hall of Famer carried San Antonio's undermanned corps of bigs with 18 points, nine rebounds, four assists and four blocks opposite Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol.
Those numbers are right in line with Timmy's season averages, which now stand at 18.8 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.6 blocks.
The Spurs will be hard pressed to keep Duncan playing at such a high level all season, but the longer Gregg Popovich can get his seminal superstar to channel his old self, the better San Antonio's chances will be of claiming the top seed in the West for the third year running.
Not to be outdone by a 16-year veteran, Kobe Bryant, now in his 17th NBA season, had himself a dandy of a game.
The Black Mamba, who averages 24.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists against the Spurs for his career, piled up 28 points, four rebounds and eight assists against his old nemeses.
More impressive, still, was how Bryant did his damage. He needed just 19 attempts (with 12 makes) to get his 28 points, turned the ball over twice (after coming in averaging four giveaways a game) and spent much of the game at the point with Steve Nash and Steve Blake both out because of injury.
Stranger still was the fact that Kobe took nary a shot—not from the field, not from three, not even from the free-throw line—over the final four minutes of the game.
Though that would seem less a credit to Kobe and more a pock on the Lakers game plan down the stretch. They had 9.3 seconds to get the Mamba a shot to tie (if not to win), but wound up with Pau launching from the corner while guarded by Duncan, one of the best defensive big men in NBA history.
Clearly, the Lakers have some work to do. They turned the ball over 17 times—one fewer than their season average—with just 18 assists, made only 14-of-20 three-point attempts and missed eight of their 22 shots from the charity stripe.
But there were plenty of positives to glean from this game. For one, the Purple and Gold were playing with Darius Morris (a second-year second-rounder and the team's third-string point guard) in the starting lineup on account of Steve and Steve's dual absences. The bench also acquitted itself relatively well, winding up just two points shy of what San Antonio's reserves totaled.
Best of all, the defensively challenged Lakers limited a team that came into the night ranked seventh in the NBA in offensive efficiency to 84 points on 38.9 percent shooting.
And they did this against the squad with the best record in the West, amidst all the multitude of distractions brought on by their ludicrous coaching carousel.
The inability of the bigs (i.e., Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Jordan Hill) to hang onto the ball, be it a hot pass or a ball off the glass, is still disconcerting and the second unit is, well, suspect.
Nonetheless, this team will improve. Mike D'Antoni is on his way, and Nash should be back to help within the next week or two.
Teams with title expectations usually don't settle for moral victories, but if you hadn't noticed by now, these Lakers aren't your average championship hopefuls.
As if they've ever been.
All told, the Spurs look like a flawed 7-1 and the Lakers a 3-5 squad with considerable potential.
Elsewhere out West, the Oklahoma City Thunder are still coming together post-James Harden, the Denver Nuggets have been up and down, the Clippers have racked up some impressive victories along with a pair of head-scratching defeats, the Memphis Grizzlies have shown some serious bite and the Minnesota Timberwolves are pulling out Ws despite losing guys at every turn.
Which is to say, the Western Conference is as wild and wide open in the early going as it's been in some time. If you're in the playoff picture on the left side of the bracket, chances are you're dealing with roster turnover, injuries or both.
As such, what you see in the West now is likely to be a far cry from what you'll see four or five months from now. In the meantime, there should be no shortage of thrills, spills and chills to follow in the land beyond LeBron James' domain in the East.