Lakers guard Kobe Bryant will return to the lineup Friday against San Antonio… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
Some things to watch when the Lakers (40-23) visit the San Antonio Spurs (45-16) Friday at AT&T Center.
1. Kobe Bryant plans to play against the Spurs. His return after missing the last seven games because of a sore left shin cuts both ways. The Lakers need Bryant in the lineup after seeing how San Antonio absolutely dismantled them earlier this week. They also need him to reestablish rhythm so that any transition period before the playoffs remains minimal. But the Spurs also want to play Bryant too. Even if San Antonio has met the Lakers in the postseason five times in the last decade, they still learn an added wrinkle about how they fare facing Bryant on this season's squad. They didn't have that luxury since the other two games coincided with Bryant's injury. The Spurs hardly get caught up in regular-season results, but a victory over the Lakers with Bryant on the floor also would give them at least some extra confidence should they meet in the postseason.
It'll be interesting to see how both Bryant and his teammates respond to his return. Will he look to play aggressively and score? Or will he establish everyone else, including Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, early? Part of this will be predicated on how the Spurs defend them and what the Lakers' ball movement entails. But the Lakers shouldn't be fixated on one approach. They should just run the offense and see where it leads them.
2. How will the Lakers defend Tony Parker? In one game, it appeared Parker couldn't buy a bucket as he went 2-of-12 from the field in the first matchup. In the other, it appeared nothing could stop the Spurs guard as he dropped 29 points on 14-of-20 shooting. The Lakers chalked up the difference to Parker being a good player and suddenly hitting shots. But the difference rings deeper than that. The Lakers showed a mixed bag in ensuring they don't get caught up on screens off pick-and-roll coverages.
Ramon Sessions, in particular, tried playing underneath the screen and coudln't catch up, while the Lakers bigs failed to rotate quickly fast enough. Steve Blake experienced similar issues but also couldn't match Parker's speed in defending him one-on-one. It's more important for the Lakers to force Parker into being a facilitator than giving him open looks.
3. The Lakers must limit turnovers. Even if they appeared more engaged on defense during Bryant's absence, the Lakers remained inconsistent on that end of the floor because of the team's inability to hold onto the ball. In the past five games, the Lakers have committed 15.4 turnovers and allowed teams, such as the Suns and Spurs, to cash in on transition. To both conserve energy and force San Antonio to run a half-court offense, the Lakers need to strike a balance with their tempo. They can do that by minimizing lazy passes and quick shots.
4. The Lakers need to dominate the glass. Even if Bryant takes a larger slice of the offensive pie, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol will remain relevant if they rebound. The Lakers have led the league in rebounding in the last five games (49.8), but both Bynum and Gasol occasionally temper their aggressiveness if they're not consistently involved in the offense.
5. Metta World Peace still needs to be engaged. During Bryant's absence, World Peace averaged 16.3 points, shot at a 59% clip and took on a larger leadership role. Those qualities will be tempered a bit because of Bryant's return. But World Peace didn't just emerge because of his absence. He emerged because he looks in better condition and has maintained sharper focus. World Peace can still play a valuable part if he channels that energy into making hustle plays, spacing the floor and, of course, playing lockdown defense.