San Antonio Spurs vs. L.A. Lakers: Let the Mind Games Begin

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San Antonio Spurs vs. L.A. Lakers: Let the Mind Games Begin
Harry How/Getty Images

Two weeks ago, tonight’s Spurs-Lakers joust loomed as the decider for home-court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs.

L.A.’s five-game losing streak and San Antonio’s return to the win column slashed and negated the drama.

So, why not create some?

Gregg Popovich might not determine his starting lineup until an hour before tipoff.

Forever obsessed with the health of his veterans, he will weigh fending off the Chicago Bulls for the NBA’s top mark and the confidence that would accompany a third victory against the two-time defending champions.

It says here he should forget Chicago’s oncoming stampede and tell Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Antonio McDyess to find dapper suits.

It worked last spring, so why not do it now?

Then, Popovich opted to sit his regulars in the regular-season finale at Dallas, forgoing the chance to climb a spot in the standings.

There are differences. The Spurs had all but picked their first-round foe after the coach’s decision. San Antonio needed a furious push just to snatch a postseason berth and avoid an opening round date with L.A.

This time, the Spurs own the West’s best record and a respite from the Lakers and Mavericks until the conference finals.

Why not force-feed the master of mind games a dose of his foul medicine?

Does L.A. really believe it will flip a switch and breeze through its April and May roadblocks en route to Phil Jackson’s fourth three-peat?

The Lakers will attack tonight’s game with an urgency that does not fit the team’s play of late.

Jackson’s squad knows its chances at another title diminish if it must traverse a trio of tough opponents sans home-court advantage.

Regaining possession of the second seed and ending a slump versus a 62-victory juggernaut would provide a measure of confidence as the playoffs approach.

How much, though, could Kobe Bryant and Jackson glean from topping a depleted Spurs roster? Would it mean as much if Parker, Ginobili, Duncan and McDyess watched from the sidelines?

And what if shorthanded San Antonio keeps the score close and threatens the heist of the season?

Popovich risks catastrophe if he charges full-steam ahead. The Big Three know this contest matters much more to the Lakers, and might show as much on national TV.

The Spurs should understand by now that L.A. can sniff out an opponent with a disengaged demeanor and destroy it.

San Antonio, after all, threatened the franchise record for wins by punishing carelessness and arrogance. Why should Popovich expect any different from his NBA-leading squad’s biggest challenger?

Ginobili and Duncan led a rout at Staples Center the previous March. The team’s mood then was one of desperation. The task was clear: avoid the Lakers in the first round at all costs.

The championship road still runs through Hollywood, but six spots in the standings can make a difference.

As the West’s guaranteed No. 1 seed, the Spurs can approach this second visit to Staples Center with less vigor.

That does not mean Tiago Splitter, George Hill, Dejuan Blair, Gary Neal, and other beneficiaries of a rest campaign will concede the game.

That might rank as the chief reason to embrace caution and continue minutes management.

Splitter has earned another extended look against a potential playoff foe with his interior gumption and his bothersome length.

Neal keeps shooting, the way Popovich wants him to tackle his role, and Blair seems to rebound after dismal performances.

Hill has started another scoring tear, and his sedulous perimeter defense can keep a victory within reach.

If the mind manipulation does not begin tonight, it should commence soon enough. Is there a better way to send off Jackson than mimicking his favorite way to enter an opponent’s head?

It says here Popovich should keep the Lakers guessing, just as he did with the Mavericks.

At worst, the Spurs lose a match that would likely have ended with an “L” anyway. San Antonio does not need to send a message.

They did that in winning at Staples Center twice in the last two campaigns and thumping the champs at home.

And if the Bulls steal away home-court advantage in an improbable Finals series?

So what.

No one in the Western Conference is superior enough to look beyond the first round. The Memphis Grizzlies or New Orleans Hornets will keep the Spurs' hands full.

The Lakers and Mavericks cannot afford to vacation, either.

The wacky third tiebreaker in the Spurs-Bulls case—awarding home court by pulling a name out of a hat—exists for a reason.

The West and East leaders do not often finish with identical records and equal intra-conference marks.

A best-case scenario makes sitting the elders worth the appearance of throwing the game.

Maybe the Spurs can cling to the same belief they did last year. Given a few days to prepare, and a coach who adjusts within a series as well as any in league history, isn’t dethroning the Lakers possible?

Not tonight.

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