We knew the absence of Kobe Bryant was going to be a major problem for the Los Angeles Lakers when trying to contend with the San Antonio Spurs in the opening round of the 2013 NBA playoffs. With the Lakers so reliant on Bryant's perimeter scoring to fuel them through the tough spots, they needed to find a new way to balance out the offense.
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What we didn't know heading into the playoffs was how dire the need for perimeter scoring would be for the Lakers because we didn't know the status of Manu Ginobili. The Spurs' super sixth man has always been a key cog to their success in the playoffs. The vast chicanery of his skill set is something hard for many opponents to contend with when he's on the floor. He can hurt you with incredibly unorthodox drives to the basket, jaw-dropping passes to get his teammates easy baskets, or deadly shooting from the outside to stretch the defense.
But heading into the playoffs, we didn't know if Manu was going to be able to provide much of a spark for the Spurs. He only played in 60 games this season and his 23.2 minutes average was the lowest since his rookie season in which he played just 20.7 minutes per game. Ginobili sat out nine of the final 10 games with a hamstring injury, and the one game he played was uneventful (two points on 1 of 4 shooting in 12 minutes), except for a great assist.
The Lakers probably have enough firepower left in their personnel to be able to hang with the Spurs when they just have to contend with Tony Parker attacking consistently from the perimeter. Steve Blake's defense on Parker was fairly good for much of the game and Steve Nash, if relatively healthy, should be able to combine enough with Blake's production to match what Parker is capable of producing on the court.
However, when you throw a healthy and productive Ginobili into the mix and only have Jodie Meeks left at your disposal, the Lakers become so far behind the level of talent and execution on the perimeter in this series that they seem pretty hopeless in their goal to advance to the second round. Manu only played in 19 minutes, but he managed 18 points on 6 of 13 shooting from the field and 3 of 5 from 3-point range.
When Ginobili checked back into the game with 5:26 left in the third quarter, the Spurs were struggling to keep a double-digit lead against the Lakers. Los Angeles had just cut the lead from 11 to six in the previous three minutes and the Spurs needed a spark, much like Ginobili has provided for them over his incredible NBA career. And that's exactly what he managed to give them.
After missing a couple of shots, Ginobili went on a big run to close out the third quarter and give the Spurs a comfortable lead once again. The first bucket he had in this eight-point flurry in the final 1:26 of the third period came off an improvised give-and-go play with DeJuan Blair. Ginobili took the pass from Blair, drove in against Pau Gasol, and banked in a nine-foot floater.
Following a missed runner by Blake, Ginobili brought the ball up the floor and fired off a pullup 3-pointer from the top of the key before Jodie Meeks even knew what he was supposed to be defending against. Then to cap off the scoring binge and end the quarter, Manu knocked down a 3-pointer in transition from the right wing with 2.6 seconds left.
All of a sudden, the Spurs were taking a 13-point lead into the fourth quarter. The Lakers wouldn't get any closer than nine points in the final 12 minutes. And this is where the Spurs separate themselves from a Kobe-less Lakers team.
Los Angeles can battle inside and try to make up for its lack of scoring on the perimeter. Gasol and Dwight Howard combined for 36 points, 31 rebounds, and seven assists (not to mention 10 turnovers) in this game. They made life decently difficult for Tim Duncan and especially troublesome for the Tiago Splitter/Matt Bonner combo during Game 1. But the Spurs coming at you from multiple angles with Parker and Ginobili is just too much for the Lakers to deal with when they're down their best perimeter player.
If this is the Ginobili we're going to see throughout this series, the Spurs may end up with plenty of rest heading into the second round.