Just when the Los Angeles Lakers lose two of their most important players to injury, their road does not get any easier. Following a loss to the Houston Rockets on Tuesday night, Kobe Bryant and company head to San Antonio to face the ever-dangerous Spurs at the AT&T Center.
The Lakers will be without both Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard, which does not bode well against a tough defensive squad in San Antonio. Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter provide plenty of size and experience in the paint, and Los Angeles will struggle to keep pace with them tonight.
However, both teams are fairly advanced in the age department, so that could potentially make for a closer matchup. As good as guys like Duncan and Kobe Bryant are, they aren't getting any younger and are prone to bad games just like any other player.
There won't be any room for ineffectiveness tonight. This is a rivalry game, and both teams badly want the win. The Lakers want to prove that they can win without two stars, while the Spurs just want to maintain pace in the Western Conference.
No matter how you look at it, this is one to watch.
Time: Wednesday, January 9th, 8 p.m. EST
TV: ESPN, Time Warner Cable Sportsnet, Fox Sports Southwest
Records: Los Angeles Lakers (15-19) vs. San Antonio Spurs (27-10)
Betting Line: Los Angeles (+13.5), San Antonio (-13.5)
Injuries: Dwight Howard (shoulder, out), Jordan Hill (hip, out), Pau Gasol (concussion, out), Steve Blake (abdomen, out)
Key Storyline: Shorthanded Lakers Seek Upset Victory Against Stacked San Antonio
Los Angeles first faced San Antonio back on November 13 and played a great defensive game. Led by 28 points and eight assists from Kobe Bryant, plus 13 points and 15 boards from Dwight Howard, the Lakers lost 84-82 thanks to a clutch three from San Antonio's Danny Green.
This time, defense will not get the Lakers anywhere.
With Howard, Gasol and Hill out, the Lakers' defensive rotation is a mess. Rookie Robert Sacre is likely to start at center, while power forward will be manned by one of Antawn Jamison, Earl Clark or Devin Ebanks.
This means that if the Lakers are to defeat the Spurs tonight, it will have to be via the signature approach of coach Mike D'Antoni. Just have more points on the board by the final buzzer. Not shutting down the opposition, but outscoring it.
The Lakers thus must turn to Metta World Peace, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash to carry the team. All three are great fits in D'Antoni's fast-paced offense, and there's a slim chance that overwhelming San Antonio from start to finish will be enough to bring home the win.
However, the Spurs like to run too. They rank third in scoring and first in assists, what with their core group of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili having won three titles together.
Their collective experience will definitely seek to take advantage of a new-look Lakers team still learning how to play with each other, and that could set the tone for a blowout in the making.
Key Matchup: Kawhi Leonard vs. Metta World Peace
The Lakers can rely on Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant to be consistent on offense, but Metta World Peace is a different story. Despite thriving as a shooter in D'Antoni's system, the man has been generally disappointing since joining the Lakers three seasons ago.
This year, World Peace is averaging 13.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game and has made 37 percent of his shots from long range.
He'll be matched up against a very similar player in San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard, a second-year forward who has shown great potential and athleticism on defense, despite seeming undersized at 6'7", 225 pounds.
Leonard missed a few weeks with tendinitis, but has averaged 8.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.8 steals in 27.4 minutes. He has also sunk a third of his threes, making him even more valuable of a weapon.
In this case, 21-year-old Leonard needs to remind World Peace that he is on the wrong side of 33. This means locking him down completely and forcing him to take bad shots and also overly rely on his three-pointers.
Contrastingly, World Peace needs to take advantage of Leonard's inexperience, looking to create off the dribble and also driving the lane. If he can do both of those and consistently make his baskets, then the Lakers will indeed have a fighting chance at pulling off an upset victory despite being shorthanded.
X-Factor: Gary Neal
The Spurs have the upper hand tonight, but Mike D'Antoni's offense is not to be counted out. This means that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich must have a spark of his own who can be counted on.
Fortunately, Gary Neal fits the bill perfectly.
A pure shooter, Neal has had some great games for San Antonio this season. Despite posting a modest 10.7 points per game, he has managed to make a respectable 36 percent of his threes. His prowess from long range rewarded him with a 29-point performance against the Houston Rockets on December 10 and a 20-point game against the defending champion Miami Heat on November 29.
Neal needs to be just as great against the Lakers. Not only does he need to use his long-range shooting effectively, but he must also create off the dribble and not be afraid to use his perimeter jumper or drive the lane to draw a foul. He doesn't even average two free-throw attempts per game, but he must take advantage of there being an inexperienced center working the middle and thus draw as many fouls as possible.
In doing this, Neal becomes the Spurs' silent assassin and more. He becomes a well-rounded player who is more than just someone who enters the game, waits to be open in three-point range and then takes the shot.
More importantly, he becomes the man whose clutch scoring takes the wind out of the Lakers' sails.
The Lakers will enter this game looking to make a statement, but their lack of effective size will keep them from doing so. The Spurs will be in full control from start to finish, causing Kobe Bryant to go into Mamba Mode and look to be the hero way too early. With him taking more than twice as many shots than anyone else on the team, the Lakers will be sunk.
Who will win?
On the Spurs' end, Duncan and Parker will run rampant against Los Angeles' porous defense. Parker will have a double-double in points and assists, and Duncan will have the same but with rebounds. Manu Ginobili will provide some pesky defense off the bench and also sink some key threes.
The story after the game, however, will be about Gary Neal putting the team on his back at key points of the third and fourth quarters. Just when it seems like the Lakers will go on a run, he'll kill their momentum with a clutch shot, three-pointer, three-point play, etc.
Throw in some tight defense on Metta World Peace, courtesy of Kawhi Leonard, and the Lakers' hopes of winning in San Antonio and avenging their early-season loss go down the drain.
This game is the Spurs' to lose, and they will take full advantage of shorthanded Los Angeles to win in a grand fashion.
San Antonio Spurs 113, Los Angeles Lakers 93