Spurs-Lakers: Gregg Popovich Will Assail San Antonio's Defense After Thumping

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IMarch 7, 2011

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 22:  Head coach Greg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs calls to his players during the game against the New Orleans Hornets at the New Orleans Arena on January 22, 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Manu Ginobili blew past a defender for another opening possession lay-up against an elite foe. This time, though, the parade of easy baskets ended there. The Lakers were not about to let the Spurs surgically demolish them, as the Miami Heat did in a Friday drubbing.

One play in the second quarter summed up Sunday's 99-83 bloodbath. Then, Pau Gasol, crowded to the point that he found himself beyond the arc, instead of underneath the basket, let it fly and buried his first three-pointer of the season. It was also his first attempt.

There are differences between the weekend's two tone-setting first quarters at the AT&T Center. The Spurs' ball movement clinic against the Heat produced high-percentage, wide-open looks. The Lakers invaded San Antonio determined to make everything they hoisted, even if a defender was there to contest.

Lamar Odom's jumper pulverized. Kobe Bryant stabbed and fired fatal shots. Derek Fisher made his hits count. Gasol was again the difference maker.

Then there was Andrew Bynum, who scored just four points but hauled down 17 rebounds. In one sequence, he stole a missed shot from Tim Duncan's grasp without jumping. Shannon Brown, as inconsistent a bench player as any coach can employ, guided the ball through the nylon a few times. He also completed a spectacular transition flush.

It was not spectacular for most of the record crowd that packed the arena to watch two Western Conference heavyweights. Call this one a first-round knockout, but don't label it a statement game.

The two-time defending champions did not need to make one. As far as the Spurs are concerned, the Lakers' message to hear came June 17, 2010, when they out-slugged the Celtics for a 16th title.

Gregg Popovich has never once believed his league-leading squad was the NBA's best. He reserved that distinction for Phil Jackson's club. He also held the Eastern Conference Champions, the Boston Celtics, in high esteem. He will help the Spurs recover because he saw Sunday coming.

He waits for the apocalypse like Woody Harrelson's character in 2012. His message to his players has been consistent since he seized the job from Bob Hill: you damn well better be prepared for it.

The Spurs delivered their rage-packed statement Friday night against an opponent whose hype had exceeded its production. The Heat asked the world to view the squad as a dynasty in the making. The team would justify the pressure with "seven or eight championships." LeBron James came up with the name "Heatles," not anyone in the dreaded media.

Sunday's outing was different. Bryant seethed after the Lakers dropped three consecutive games before the All-Star break, including a low-light clunker in Cleveland. Jackson's unit has responded since the mid-season showcase with a 7-0 mark.

Bryant, at his competitive best, is not unlike Popovich. He again said the Spurs had been the league's best team "all year." He would probably say that if the Lakers wanted that distinction, they should not have lost to San Antonio 92-87 on Dec. 28.

That rout is another reason to throw a miserable afternoon in the garbage can, along with that week-old McDonald's bag and that snot-filled tissue.

Popovich saw Sunday what he already knew the Lakers possessed. He knew Bynum was long and freakishly athletic. When pundits wondered if Bryant was losing steam as an MVP-caliber performer, the Spurs' coach chuckled and braced for more torrential rain.

L.A. led 34-13 after one period and did not show any mercy until the final buzzer. San Antonio, after all, did the same to Miami in a nationally-televised punk job.

The Spurs still own a 51-12 record, the overall top seed and the best record in the Western Conference. The conference rival within shouting distance of an ambush lost hours later at home, with a tough test looming tonight in Minnesota.

Those who think the Mavericks can just show up at the Target Center and dispatch the home squad must have missed the previous two seasons in which the Timberwolves scored head-scratching, upset victories. That was before Kevin Love decided to chase Moses Malone's consecutive double-doubles record.

Popovich will not find much to subdue the vomit when he watches the Lakers thrashing a second or third time on video. He will make sure his team feels the same nausea and pain, too.

He might cheer, though, the passing of a thunderstorm he expected. L.A. was going to do this at some point, right?

The Lakers also proved during a stormy run to the NBA Finals that they cannot shoot as unconsciously as they did in a matinee laugher four straight times. Bryant also has to know the Spurs will not miss as many of those open perimeter looks. That might explain this quote: "And we know they can do the same thing to us."

Those who see a 16-point defeat as a reason to guarantee the Spurs will not win the title misunderstand the genius and essence of Popovich in his unintentional Coach of the Year bid.

Yes, he opened up the offense and chose to rely less on Duncan. Yes, he reneged on a previous hesitation to afford rookies regular rotation minutes. Yes, he admits the franchise-best record even surprises him.

The focus of a man driven to win, though, has not changed. His next film-session tirade—or maybe he will take a more compassionate approach and extract a few cuss words—figures to sound familiar to Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Duncan. A few probable talking points:

Get back on defense. How dare you miss that rotation? Why did you go under that screen?

Popovich merits praise from the basketball-writing community because for all his change, and there has been plenty, he has not bended on a core principle. One of the two coaches who sparred in Sunday's mismatch will moan and complain about a defense not up to snuff, and it won't be Jackson.

The Spurs did not build this record in a day. They did not lose it in one, either. The journey continues Tuesday against Detroit, and he will expect his players to shoot a better first quarter.

He did not get the Lakers' potential message because he did not need one from the unit he has considered the standard since opening night. He knows a team trailing his in the standings was always a better bet to win the conference.

So he'll tell Dejuan Blair not to worry about trees. He'll pat James Anderson on the back for several nice plays with the game out of hand. He might wonder if it's time for a heavier dose of Tiago Splitter's unrefined yet useful toughness.

Jeff Van Gundy had to admit he liked how Splitter bodied up Gasol in the third quarter. Popovich liked it, too.

The Spurs did something during that stretch that caused their coach to stand up and applaud, a rarity on a dreary afternoon. They got two stops in a row in a performance where those came at a premium.

During Friday's fourth quarter, when his team was up 30 instead of down by that margin, he stood up to yell at Steve Novak for a blown rotation. His insistence that details matter, regardless of the score, is what will keep the Spurs in the title mix. Allowing and demanding one of his most athletic teams ever to push the pace ranks as a secondary reason to commend him.

For all the talk about the Lakers interior dominance, they outscored the Spurs 30-26 in the paint and shot just 10 free throws. Popovich can live with those numbers. In a victory, he would have lauded them.

He'll need to figure out a way to involve Duncan more against Bynum's length. He'll need better than 3-10 from Ginobili in the playoffs. Those answers will come or they won't.

In a make or miss league, as Popovich calls it, the Spurs missed a lot. The Lakers hit everything. His critique will start there.

The way these Spurs make others bleed may have changed. Where he looks to stop it when an opponent returns the favor never will.

The defense rests with Pop? It better not.


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