The Spurs, Lakers, Grizzlies and Space
From the head coach to the players, there weren’t many answers coming from the bowels of the AT&T Center after the Los Angeles Lakers 98-84 physical dismantling of the San Antonio Spurs.
Statements proclaiming an unexplainable lack of focus, or a need to play harder and smarter were offered half-heartedly. But the simplest truth was summed up succinctly by head coach Gregg Popovich.
“The Lakers played great and they beat us to death,” Popovich said. “There’s nothing else you can say about it.”
The embarrassing loss was a confluence of damning circumstances for the Spurs—players came out flat and unprepared for an unusually keyed in Andrew Bynum, the Lakers bench played over their heads—that can be dismissed as simply a bad night.
Even with Kobe Bryant, these Lakers are not 20-something points better than the San Antonio Spurs.
But the loss did well to bring the Spurs most glaring weakness to the forefront. In terms of public perception, in one night Andrew Bynum was able to rip the scab off the festering wound that was last season’s playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies for the Spurs.
For all their improvements this season, and there have legitimately been quite a few, the San Antonio Spurs are still vulnerable against an abundance of size.
Andrew Bynum’s 30-rebound performance emphatically punctuated that point, but fails to fully encompass the extent of their vulnerability.
In the waning years of Tim Duncan’s career, the Spurs have maintained their status as an upper-echelon team through their manipulation of time and space. Their utilization of shooters and player and ball movement help create open spacing on the floor where Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili can wreak havoc.
The combinations of Bynum and Gasol, and even Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, exist to consume space.
And while that most obviously manifests itself on the defensive end where the Spurs struggled to rebound and defend the paint, against the Lakers or Grizzlies it’s not a problem unique to the Spurs in the NBA. No team really has an answer to keeping these frontline tandems from their respective 20-10 double-doubles.
Where the Spurs are vulnerable is in providing a response of their own. The days of claiming ownership of the paint by simply planting Tim Duncan in the lane like a 7-foot “Come and Take It” flag are gone, and have been for some time.
The Spurs are still able to maintain an inside-out approach thanks to the dribble penetration of Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, but against an engaged Bynum or Grizzlies, that equation changes.
For all their strengths as elite ball handlers and finishers, the duo of Ginobili and Parker are deficient when it comes to explosive verticality. The entire roster is. That was apparent last night on any one of Ginobili’s drives that ended up with the Argentine engulfed and smothered by Bynum and Gasol.
Even a sliver of space is generally enough for either to ignite the Spurs entire offense, and there was a time Duncan supplied it in massive quantities like an oxygen tank on an acetylene torch.
That tank isn’t entirely empty, but it’s not as free flowing as it once was, either.
Tiago Splitter, for all his length, manipulates space more than he creates it. This is why the Spurs employ Matt Bonner, and why simply not playing him in these matchups is not a viable option for the Spurs.
The thought that running Bonner off the 3-point line negates his worth is short sighted. Running Bonner off the line means a defensive player had to rotate out there in the first place. The onus then falls on the rest of the Spurs to react and exploit the opening quickly.
Between DeJuan Blair and Boris Diaw, the Spurs have two quality interior passers, but the lack of respect paid to them as scoring threats by the Grizzlies or Lakers also mutes their contributions.
Defending the likes of the Lakers or Grizzlies on the interior remains a weakness for the Spurs, but truthfully, few teams have competent answers.
An elite defensive big man to pair with Duncan would be ideal, but they are also expensive and the Spurs have precious few resources to acquire one. Instead the Spurs must deploy their frontlines strategically, trusting that there will be enough pride not to surrender such a horrid rebounding performance throughout a seven-game series, and transform the game from a vertical one, to one played side-to-side.
Anything less, and the Spurs playoff hopes will be suffocated.