Running backwards toward the Spurs’ hoop, Dwight Howard motioned for his teammates to hurry back on defense. It was but a small gesture that spoke volumes. With Kobe Bryant out for the rest of the season, Steve Nash still sitting out and the Lakers’ place in the playoffs still indefinite, this team needs the rest of its leaders to speak up and step up. Howard was locked in from tip-off to his post-game sideline interview tonight, uncharacteristically maintaining a serious poker face throughout. Pau Gasol, having a horrible shooting night, managed to impact the game on the side of the court for which he is often maligned – defense. And Steve Blake, starting for the injured Nash, rose to the challenge and contributed in the biggest ways. For their efforts, they got the win, 91-86.
Dwight Howard – He spoke in the huddle after practice on Saturday afternoon and he spoke in the same circle as the Lakers prepared to make their entrance from the tunnel. Howard reminded his teammates this weekend that even without Bryant, they still have the talent to accomplish something great, and tonight he showed that he can not only lead with words, but by example. He went at Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter on both ends of the floor, attacking on offense and hindering on defense. He finished with 26 points on 9-15 from the field (8-17 from the free throw line, often as a result of Hack-a-Howard), 17 rebounds, two steals and three blocks.
Steve Blake - #whitemamba and #vinoblanco were trending on Twitter tonight, all referring to the player who missed 37 games this season, but has played the best since donning the purple and gold uniform. What a night Blake had – 23 points on 8-16 from the field (20 of which came in the first half), 4-8 from downtown, five rebounds, four assists, a pair of steals and some sticky defense on Tony Parker. Ranked 14th in the league from the three-point line, Blake has played with immense confidence since he returned from injury. Whether coming off the bench or starting, he has proven that he is ready to impact the game from whichever role he has to play. In the past four games, he’s averaged 13 ppg, 4.5 apg, 5 rpg and 1.3 spg.
Pau Gasol – It was one of the Spaniard’s worst shooting nights, just 3-17 from the field for this seven points. However, despite his struggles offensively, Gasol still managed to impact the game with 16 huge rebounds, three blocks and a steal. Perhaps a halftime conversation with Bryant gave him some encouragement. He said after the game that Bryant texted trainer, Gary Vitti, asking to speak with his co-captain. In a short conversation, Bryant told Gasol not to worry about his missed shots and continue to be aggressive. Note taken and applied.
Defense – What’s worse than the Lakers shooting just 37.1% for the game? How about the Spurs at 36.5%? It wasn’t the prettiest of offensive shows tonight, but despite just two players shooting better than 50%, the Lakers found a way to win by maintaining their effort on the other end of the floor. Except for their 52.6% shooting in the final quarter, the Spurs didn’t shoot better than 38% in the previous three. Tony Parker didn’t hit his one and only field goal until the third quarter, and for the night was held to just four points on 1-10. Tim Duncan was 9-14 in the first and fourth quarters, but was 2-8 in the second and third. The Lakers also outrebounded San Antonio 58-46 and collected 11 steals. The Spurs were held to just 86 points on 36.5% shooting.
Ugly Offense – Only five players in the game shot 50% or better from the field. Without Duncan and Bonner, the Spurs went just 19-63 from the field – 30%. The Lakers were even worse. Without Howard, Blake and Jamison, the rest of the team was just 10-46 – 22%.
Defense – Though the Lakers’ efforts on defense can be commended, there were areas that still left much to be desired. They still gave up 42 points in the paint, and allowed the Spurs 17 points on the break.
Early Turnovers – The Lakers racked up nine turnovers in the first half, giving up 11 points to the Spurs as a result. The team was very active to start the game, to be sure, with Metta World Peace and Gasol both grabbing steals on consecutive defensive possessions, but the Lakers tried numerous times to play at a quicker pace tonight, and as a result, turned the ball over.
The Spurs are not just a playoff team – they have the second best record in the Western Conference and the third best record in the league. Manu or no Manu, they’re still a team coached by one of the best in the NBA in Greg Popovich and are led by two of the most elite players in their respective positions in Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. With everything they’ve gone through, the Lakers should have crumbled to the bottom of the heap by now, with the latest injury to Bryant propelling them to a complete collapse, but here they are still standing, still fighting, just as their bed-ridden leader would have wanted.