David Beckham was in his front row seats. So was Zac Efron, but it was the guy sitting next him in the Staples Center that probably caught Kobe Bryant’s attention.
As in, after making the biggest free agent splashes this summer, it looks like someone is setting the Lakers up to get “Punk’d” this season.
The 1-4 start that led to the Lakers’ firing of head coach Mike Brown has now evolved into a soap opera-ish melodrama with a gloomy 3-5 mark. Heads were still spinning after the hasty axe fell on the former Spurs assistant. Then proceeded to explode when the Lakers front office flirted with Phil Jackson and his 11 NBA title rings only to opt for run-and-gun guru Mike D’Antoni to replace Brown.
The reaction to D’Antyni’s hiring and Jackson’s dissing has been loud and clear. Crystal clear. Almost nobody likes it.
“It’s Unanimous: Lakers Selection of Mike D’Antoni over Phil Jackson is Wrong” said one headline in the LA Times. Longtime sports columnist Bill Plaske even poked fun at the former Suns and Knicks coach’s famed uptempo offense with his story title:
“Why Lakers hiring of Mike D’Antoni is bad, in 7 seconds or less.”
Now to the stuff that matters: What does this LA story mean for the Spurs?
Just like the Thunder trading James Harden to Houston, the Lakers pressing the panic button only to not bring in the one man who seemingly could guide this LA squad to the top of the Western Conference only opens the door of title path opportunity a little wider for San Antonio. OKC is still adjusting to life without the Beard. The Lakers will trash the Princeton offense Brown implemented and have to learn D’Antoni’s free-wheeling, open-spacing style on the fly.
Sure, having Steve Nash at the helm will help the transition. Once his 38-year old broken shin gets better, Nash can help the Lakers roster get used to shooting in seven seconds or less.
Yes, Tuesday night’s 84-82 win by the Spurs is only Game 8 of 82. Yes, the calendar still says November, not April or May.
But don’t kid yourself. Even as Gregg Popovich scoffs at the notion of statement games, know that the Spurs and Lakers do give a damn. Even this early.
Kobe and Tim Duncan measure each other with titles. Tony Parker attacks the rim with playoff gusto until Pao Gasol decides to drop an elbow or two. Manu Ginobili works to get inside Metta World Peace’s head.
The Mavericks’ championship cameo is over. The Thunder have crashed the party, and look to hang out in the “Best of the West” zip code as long as their young legs will run. But SA and LA remain the gold standards for Western Conference consistency and relevancy.
How close are the two franchises? The Lakers hold the all-time series edge. But just barely, 74-73.
So what do the Spurs take out of beating a team still awaiting their new head coach? Pop has to like what he saw out of Tiago Splitter after inserting the big Brazilian into the starting lineup. Teams have playoff rotations. Splitter should start in a special rotation that the Spurs can call “When facing teams with big man duos”.
Exactly like the kind of big, twin-tower lineups the Lakers and the Memphis Grizzlies have.
Splitter and his lanky frame gave Dwight Howard a rude awakening to his first Spurs/Lakers collision. The Spurs will need lots more of that aggressive and confident play from Tiago as this season winds its way to the playoffs.
But the biggest profit from the night? No, not the $275,000 that Floyd “Money” Mayweather won by betting on the Spurs. The biggest positive is easily the “This ain’t our first rodeo” play of Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard.
The second time around for Leonard guarding lethal scorers like Bryant is already showing signs of why Pop feels the second-year player will be the foundation of future Spurs teams. Kobe did sizzle for 28 points, but Leonard made him work for those points. And when LA drew up a play for a Bryant game winning shot at the end, Leonard’s strong denial defense on Kobe made World Peace pass the ball instead to Gasol. Who bricked an open three-point shot.
Afterwards Bryant wondered what happened. Metta says he just hit the open man.
“I designed it,” World Peace told reporters after the game. “Well, coach designed it for Kobe and then the guy denied Kobe so I said, ‘OK, let me get it to the two-time champion Pau.’ The Spaniard almost made the shot.”
The Spurs made theirs.
Or more accurately, Green hit perhaps the biggest shot of his young career with 9.3 seconds to play.
Remember, Green hit the first shot he took, then proceeded to miss eight out of his next 10 tries. So just having Pop draw a play where Duncan, a future first ballot Hall of Famer, sets the screen to set you free will do wonders for a young shooter’s confidence. Draining the bucket with a hard charging Kobe coming at you means Green is set to erase his bitter postseason meltdown from last season.
And that’s the biggest plus the Spurs bring home after a 3-1 West Coast road trip.
Danny Green’s mojo is intact. The Lakers are still searching for answers.
And the West is officially up for grabs, with SA driving in the pole position.
As long as the Spurs don’t see Kutcher coming from behind the AT&T Center curtains with a camera crew, it means someone else is getting punk’d.