The San Antonio Spurs will begin their bid for the Larry O'Brien Trophy against the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday afternoon. Although Gregg Popovich's squad boasts the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, there are plenty of question marks surrounding the Spurs entering the playoffs.
A hamstring injury to super sixth man Manu Ginobili kept him out down the stretch of the regular season until Thursday's finale, so it remains to be seen just how healthy he will be and how much he can contribute.
Tim Duncan is still being his typically consistent self, and Tony Parker is leading the team in scoring and assists. Unfortunately, Parker has been nursing an injury of his own—a severely sprained ankle.
There is definitely the requisite balance and depth for the Spurs to make another deep postseason push. However, the Lakers have been hot recently, winning their last five games—the latter two coming without injured superstars Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash.
Few teams have battled through the adversity that Los Angeles has this season, and it appropriately took until Game 82 for Mike D'Antoni's bunch to clinch a playoff berth.
As Dan McCarney of Spurs Nation points out, too, the team's offense has been in decline since Parker went down, averaging just 96.8 points per 100 possessions over the past 10 games. That mark was as high as 107 during the first 60 contests.
It should be an interesting opening round series to say the least. Below is a breakdown of television information, as well as a list of predictions and analysis as to how this clash will turn out.
Round 1 Schedule
|1||Sunday, April 21 at 3:30 p.m. ET||AT&T Center in San Antonio||ABC|
|2||Wednesday, April 24 at 9:30 p.m. ET||AT&T Center in San Antonio ||TNT|
Friday, April 26 at 10:30 p.m. ET
|STAPLES Center in Los Angeles ||ESPN|
Sunday, April 28 at 7 p.m. ET
|STAPLES Center in Los Angeles||TNT|
Tuesday, April 30
|AT&T Center in San Antonio||N/A|
Thursday, May 2
|STAPLES Center in Los Angeles||N/A|
Saturday, May 4
|AT&T Center in San Antonio||TNT|
Regular-Season Record and Leaders
Points Leader: Tony Parker (20.3 PPG)
Rebounds Leader: Tim Duncan (9.9 RPG)
Assists Leader: Tony Parker (7.6 APG)
Spurs First-Round Series Breakdown
Biggest Strength: Offensive Efficiency/Versatility
San Antonio has seven players who score at least 9.4 points per contest, which allows the offense to attack opponents in so many different ways. Defense is still a staple of this team, but the way the Spurs share the basketball is marvelous to see.
There are plenty of talented individuals, yet no one has the superstar syndrome to hog the ball consistently.
With Parker as the catalyst, the Spurs lead the NBA in assists per game with an average of 25, are third in overall shooting percentage—including fifth from beyond the arc—and fourth with 103 points per game.
That fluidity on offense helps San Antonio dictate the pace of the game, and that will be especially important facing the relentlessly aggressive attack of the Lakers.
Playing Matt Bonner at the 4 should give the Lakers some difficulties in matching up due to his ability to shoot the three-pointer and spread the floor. Boris Diaw would have also been useful in that regard, but he recently underwent back surgery and will be out three to four weeks.
Biggest Weakness: Offensive Rebounding
Although the Lakers are not known as a particularly effective defensive team, the Spurs may find themselves in several spots of bother if they can't crash the glass on offense.
Only the Boston Celtics had fewer offensive rebounds than San Antonio in 2012-13, and that doesn't exactly bode well for this series considering the Lake Show's style of play.
D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less" offense demands a quick trigger, increased number of possessions and faster pace. The Spurs have the personnel to run in Parker and Kawhi Leonard, but not at the rate the Lakers do.
If LA can establish the tempo early and sink a few quick buckets, it could force the Spurs out of rhythm and into quick shots. That could put them in an early hole, where the Lakers can capitalize and push in transition.
The lack of offensive boards is somewhat of a byproduct as to how well San Antonio typically executes its offense. Having said that, the onus will be on Tiago Splitter and Duncan to keep the Lakers away from second-chance opportunities.
Best Matchup: Spurs' Second Unit vs. Lakers' Second Unit
The aforementioned depth that San Antonio has will be a critical factor in this series. Now that the Lakers are certain to be without Bryant and likely Nash, there aren't many viable contributors ready to step up on this stage.
With the exception of veteran Antawn Jamison and Earl Clark—who started 36 games this season—LA has a lot of unproven commodities coming off the pine.
That should lead to the Lakers' starters eating up a majority of the minutes, and although it might allow them to steal one on the road, it should ultimately wear them down over the span of a seven-games series.
Gary Neal is an X-factor who is going to present problems to whomever is guarding him—be it Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks, Darius Morris or whatever strategy D'Antoni chooses to deploy.
Another important piece of the Spurs' puzzle is Kawhi Leonard, who leads the team with 1.7 steals per contest. Leonard's explosiveness as a swingman should help the team's cause immensely—particularly when Metta World Peace is not on the floor.
Worst Matchup: LA's Big Men on the Low Block
The tandem of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol has emerged as a force since Bryant's injury. Gasol has the opportunity to pass from the post now, which was something he struggled to find early in adjusting to D'Antoni's fast-paced offense.
Howard has asserted himself more and picked up his game, particularly in March and April. Both LA bigs have become rebounding machines, and Gasol has two triple-doubles in his past three contests.
That will help absorb the loss of Bryant and Nash, who are both capable of facilitating and running the offense.
It's not as though the Spurs play badly on the inside. Splitter has played sensationally well off of the pick-and-roll, and Duncan is swatting 2.7 shots per game.
The problem is, Splitter will be on Howard and Duncan will be on Gasol. That is a severe mismatch for Splitter, and Gasol has the interior passing ability to find him and also the range to get separation from Duncan.
Just four days ago, Gasol did have a horrible game against the Spurs in sinking just three of his 17 shots, but Howard dominated Splitter, and the Lake Show's two studs combined for 11 offensive rebounds and 33 total to just six and 20 for their counterparts.
Gasol isn't going to play that badly in every game of this series, and there's a reason he and Howard got 77 of 99 half-court touches in the last meeting—a 91-86 Lakers victory.
Key Player: Manu Ginobili
The Spurs go as Manu goes, and if he's not nearly healthy enough to contribute, it may be a premature exit for the reigning Western Conference finalists.
Who will win this series?
Ginobili eased back into action against the Timberwolves on Wednesday, playing just 12 minutes and sinking one field goal. Thankfully, he has a few more days to rest, but whether he's ready to be the player he's capable of being in Game 1 seems in doubt.
This has been the second-worst shooting season of Ginobili's career as it is, and his 11.8 points average is the lowest since his rookie campaign. Combine that uncharacteristic form with this ailing hamstring, and it has to have the Spurs seriously worried.
Unlike in the case of LA's stars, though, San Antonio has plenty of players who can rise to the occasion off the bench.
However, if the Spurs are meant to advance past the opening series, a modest contribution from Ginobili will be required.
If history is any indication, great news awaits the victor of this series, as ESPN Stats & Info points out:
In Tim Duncan/Kobe Bryant era, the Lakers & Spurs have met in the playoffs 6 times. Each time, the winner went on to reach the NBA Finals.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 18, 2013
There is a huge disparity between seeding and depth between these two teams, but this is a frightening matchup for San Antonio. Plus, Nash may be ready to return as early as Game 1, according to Marc J. Spears of Yahoo!
If the Lakers' bigs continue playing at such a high level and the Spurs don't get enough out of Ginobili—whose individual opponents would easily give his team a massive edge if he were only healthy enough to exploit them—it's going to be difficult to get out of the quarterfinals.
This is such a veteran bunch for Popovich, though, and he has consistently coached himself out of tight spots. LA has had pressure all year to succeed, and the Spurs have meanwhile quietly taken care of business as usual.
It's not going to be pretty, but San Antonio's home-court advantage and significant studs that have gotten it done time and again in the postseason will help them advance at least to the West semis.
Spurs in six.