Know your opponent: Phillip Barnett stops by to talk Spurs-Lakers

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It’s playoff time, guys. But before you become too invested in Game 1 (I know, too late), you’d better know your opponent.

Phillip Barnett from Forum Blue and Gold stopped by to talk Spurs-Lakers with me and to share his thoughts on the roller-coaster ride that has been the Lakers’ season.

Matthew Tynan: To say this season has been a strange one in LA would be an understatement. Can you describe the ups and downs of this year and kind of capture the mindset of Lakers fans? The storyline never ended, even through overtime of the final game of the NBA season.

Phillip Barnett: How much time do you have?

This has absolutely been one of the most peculiar seasons that I’ve ever experienced. After last season ended, I remember fielding questions via twitter about the upcoming Lakers season and telling my followers that I thought the possibility of Dwight Howard ending up in the Forum Blue and Gold were very slim and that there was no shot at Steve Nash becoming a Laker. Then boom: The mega Dwight deal sent Bynum to Philly and Howard to Los Angeles. A couple of weeks later, we land Steve Nash and I nearly explode.

Going into the season, nearly everyone was predicting a Lakers/Heat Finals (I went on record saying that the Thunder were still the favorites out West) and the expectations were sky high despite the fact that Howard still wasn’t fully healthy and Nash was nearly a billion years old.

We went through the preseason winless, Nash broke his leg in the 2nd game of the season, Mike Brown was fired five games into the season, Bernie Bickerstaff was a coaching god for four games, we brought in D’Antoni after flirting with the idea of bringing back Phil Jackson, got off to an awful 15-21 start and pundits wondered whether or not this team would make the postseason. On top of all of that, Pau Gasol, easily my favorite Laker on this team, continued to struggle and was being murdered by every radio guy, blogger, and journalist in the city.

On the plus side, Jordan Hill was playing great and Kobe was having one of the most efficient seasons of his career at age 34. The things he was doing in the first three months of the season were absolutely unbelievable. The Lakers had won six of nine heading into their Jan. 6 game with Denver and Hill was injured. Pau and Dwight injuries would soon follow — which would ultimately lead the way to Earl Clark getting minutes — who ended up being a pleasant surprise off the bench, and then in a starting role.

He regressed back to the mean in March, but the Lakers started showing signs of actually being a basketball team by then despite Kobe/Howard and Nash/Howard issues in February, and D’Antoni keeping a tight rotation despite injury issues across the board.

Fast forward to the last month of the year. The Lakers win two of their first three, drop their fourth straight to the Clippers — giving them their first Pacific Division title… ever (it was so weird watching them clinch against the Lakers). Ron Artest would come back from meniscus surgery in less than two weeks, they would win their next two games against the Hornets and Blazers — and then Kobe went down with the Achilles injury in the Warriors game.

Kobe had two incidents before the Achilles destruction — a knee injury and an ankle injury — and he failed to rest at all during the course of that game (he had been averaging over 45 minutes in the month of April). The Lakers would win that game, then a game against your Spurs, then the season finale against Houston in overtime to wrap up the 7th seed. Steve Blake turned into a scoring threat, Dwight Howard has started to do Dwight Howard things and Pau finished with two triple-doubles in his last three games.

This, to say the least, has been an anomalous season. I’ve never seen anything like it. The differential between the peaks and valleys have been much greater than any other season in my lifetime, and probably ever. They’re playing well right now heading into the playoffs, but they’ll also be heading into the postseason without their best player. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around everything that’s happened. It’s going to make a great 30 for 30 one day.

MT: There have to be books written about this season in Los Angeles. It’s 100 percent necessary. As crazy as it was on the surface — something you’ve just outlined quite well — you know there was even more to talk about behind the scenes. Kobe should write the book, probably. Speaking of Bryant, give me one word (or however many you want, because I’m sure there was a step-by-step process of emotion) of what it felt like to watch him go down. And how exactly has this offense changed in the brief time without him on the floor?

PB: In one word: devastating.

But as you can understand, one world can’t really capture the zeitgeist of the days following Kobe’s injury. I’ve had myriad conversations about Kobe’s longevity and how he’s been able to avoid these kind of injuries. As a fan, I still haven’t quite wrapped my mind around the idea of Kobe’s career potentially being over, and to even type those words gave me a bit of a grimy feeling. I haven’t been able to talk about it much, and I don’t think I’ll spend too many words here discussing it, but I do hope he’s able to make a recovery and see the floor for at least one more year.

As far as a change in the offense, it’s hard to decide where to begin. While the offense has ostensibly been running through the frontcourt, I think the putative reason they’ve been successful without Kobe is largely due to Steve Blake. As weird as it sounds he’s been absolutely phenomenal getting the team into their sets, taking care of the ball and playing within his range of capabilities. While he’s had more opportunities to score, he’s still scoring in the same ways that he had been scoring in all year. After Blake, Pau has seemed to regained his form. He’s getting more touches in spots that are more favorable to his skill set, and he’s been great as well.

One thing that I’ve noticed is that the spacing is a bit better without Kobe on the floor. He likes to operate in some of the same spots that both Dwight and Gasol enjoy, and without Kobe on the floor, it seems to have opened things up for both Dwight and Pau, who are combining for 40 points and 29 rebounds over the course of the last three games. It has also opened things up for Jamison, who has some of the greatest slashing instincts of any Laker over the last 10 years or so. The ball movement overall has been more consistent, but not necessarily better. When the ball is moving while Kobe is on the court, the Lakers are nearly unstoppable offensively. When the ball is moving without Kobe, meaning someone beside him is doing all of the playmaking, things get a bit sloppy at times. While I’ve enjoyed the effort in trying to keep everyone involved, this could be problematic against a team like the Spurs who can hurt the Lakers in transition (but really, who can’t hurt the Lakers in transition).

Overall, the Lakers are going to hurt without Kobe on the floor, but not so much that they won’t be competitive and that they won’t score. It’s going to be tough in late game situations when someone needs to get a shot up. For all his flaws, Kobe is able to get quality shots up in any situation, and not having that is going to be trouble as this series progresses (I’m assuming that the Lakers keep these games competitive here).

I’m a bit interested in how San Antonio is going to look re-integrating Manu Ginobili in the postseason. It isn’t something they haven’t done before, but how long until he’s back to normal, and how much time can they afford not having him at full strength?

MT: How much? Take the time of opening tip against your Lakers on Sunday and subtract it by one second. That would be the last possible moment I’d totally be cool having him less than full strength.

In all seriousness, it’s impossible to know if he’ll ever be back to normal this postseason, but the Spurs need him to be. And it’s not like we’re talking about the Manu of old here, San Antonio just needs him to be what he is. He’s the floor leader of the second unit, and his absence is felt deeply across the board. Yeah, his numbers have been down. Yes, he’s been injured frequently this season. And, sure, his shooting has been awful at times. But the knowledge of the system he brings and the attention he draws are invaluable, and seemingly only evident when he’s injured and in street clothes.

The Spurs can’t win if Ginobili isn’t right, and that could potentially include the first round.

Speaking of the first round, how do these teams match up from the L.A. standpoint, especially without Kobe in uniform?

PB: I think the Spurs have the advantage at nearly every position except for center, where Dwight is much better than Tiago Splitter. But even there, Splitter is going into this series knowing exactly what his role is going to be on a game-to-game basis whereas Dwight still doesn’t have a clear cut definition of what is expected of him going into his first playoff series as a Laker.

The last Lakers/Spurs game will be a good indication of what we’re going to see from this team. The offense is going to run through our bigs, and when shots don’t go up from either Pau or Howard, the Lakers are going to have to hope that perimeter shots are falling. Jodie Meeks, Steve Blake and Ron Artest are all incredibly streaky from outside and miss much more often than they make. Defending this team, I feel, won’t be too difficult as this series progresses as D’Antoni has been willing to make adjustments, just not at the rate that you’d expect from an NBA head coach.

What I don’t expect in this series is for Tony Parker to go 1-for-10 for any games this series and being pulled in crunch time. Kawhi Leonard and Gary Neal are going to give our perimeter defenders problems, and if Ginobili is even half as good as he’s been in the past, he’s going to give the Lakers problems as well. However, with Kobe out, one of our most glaring weaknesses on the defensive end is no longer there. Kobe has been one to gamble and lose his assignment (Pop even drew up a game-winning shot for Danny Green once because he knew Kobe would bite on a misdirection play once, if I remember correctly). So expect less wide open three pointers from the wings and corners than what you’re used to seen against the Lakers. But if Parker/Neal/Ginobili live in the paint, the Lakers have no shot at winning this series — and if Nash comes back — the frequency of those guys getting into the teeth of our defense only increases.

MT: OK man, it is now that time. I need a prediction. We’ll talk again after Game 1, but how is this thing going to pan out? My official prediction: I think the Spurs will snap out of this slump/coast-mode and win the series in five. Without Kobe on the floor, the Lakers will have to be flawless to contend. I feel like they have too many weaknesses the Spurs can exploit. So there is it, what say you?

PB: I think the Lakers have been playing at a really high level, and because the core of this team even without Kobe is still very talented, I do think the Lakers can steal two games from the Spurs, but ultimately fall in Six.

MT: Thanks a lot, Phillip. Enjoy the show folks.