Moments after finishing his chat with reporters about 90 minutes before the Spurs-Lakers game at AT&T Center on Thursday night, Los Angeles coach Luke Walton turned to a team aide and wondered, aloud, why he had awakened from an afternoon nap with what he called “a splitting headache.”
A small gaggle of San Antonio media types then took turns describing the local phenomenon called “cedar fever,” including the fact that this year’s infliction has seemed particularly vexing.
“Oh, great,” Walton said. “The trainers tell me a lot of the guys were complaining of the same thing.”
Walton was advised that a good antihistamine might help, but by the end of the Spurs’ 134-94 dismantling of his young team, he needed something considerably more powerful to stop the throbbing in his head. Walton proudly wore Lakers purple and gold through the first seven seasons of his NBA career, so coaching the Lakers team that suffered the most lopsided loss ever against the Spurs was especially painful.
Indeed, the Spurs never had beaten the Lakers by as many as 40 points, but did so Thursday despite Gregg Popovioch’s resting all five starters in the fourth quarter.
Walton’s real headache on Thursday night was trying to find a way to slow Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard. San Antonio’s All-NBA small forward scored 31 points in just over 26 minutes, sitting out the final 16 minutes of the Spurs’ most lopsided win of the season. It was his 10th game of 30 or more points this season, and his second consecutive such production.
Leonard rolled up 22 points in the first half, when he made 3-of-4 3-point shots, 7-of-9 field goals and 6-of-7 free throws, in 18 minutes. The first 40-point game of his career seemed a real possibility until the Spurs lead grew to historic levels in the second half. That prompted Gregg Popovich to turn the game over to a lineup that featured three first-year Spurs, two of them rookies.
Popovich’s time management logic can’t be faulted, especially with a Saturday game scheduled for the thin air of Mexico City’s 7,382-foot altitude. His key players will want to be fresh for that challenge.
Leonard appreciates his coach always taking the long view, but admits it might be nice to have a chance to go for 40 points if the circumstances allow. In an NBA season in which most of the attention has been paid to individuals chasing nightly triple-doubles, he has largely been ignored by the national media.
Would he like to play into the fourth quarter after amassing 30 points in the first three?
“Maybe if the game was close,” Leonard said, “but you can’t just risk that injury, or anything, out there on the court.”
Leonard’s first-half scoring explosion opened the floor for his teammates and five more scored in double figures, including center Pau Gasol, who nearly pitched a perfect offensive game. For the fifth time in his career, the former Lakers star didn’t miss any of his 9 shots, scoring 22 points. His only miss: A free throw in the second quarter. He also had 9 rebounds and 6 assists, which makes him part of an exclusive NBA club. Only two other players in NBA history, Wilt Chamberlain and Charles Barkley, have multiple games with at least 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists.
Gasol also sat out the fourth quarter, logging just under 26 minutes.
“It’s definitely nice to have a game like this where you’re a little more aggressive and things kind of go your way and you’re able to score more points than usual,” said Gasol, who entered the game averaging 11.2 points per game. “Definitely helps with the confidence. We did a lot of good things, played well at both ends of the floor and now we’ve got to keep it up.”
That the Spurs produced their highest scoring game of the season against the Lakers was no great surprise. Los Angeles entered the game ranked 29th in the 30-team league in defensive efficiency, and had given up 149 points to the Golden State Warriors in a 43-point loss in November. A hard-nosed defender in seven seasons with the Lakers, the team’s defensive deficiencies are especially galling to Walton.
He can take some solace in Popovich’s belief that a team that many Spurs fans regard as the team’s all-time rival is in good hands as it builds for the future after a descent to the bottom of the Western Conference standings that attended the injury-ravaged end of Kobe Bryant’s great career.
“I think Luke has done a great job establishing a new family, a new road and this is where we go (and) we are the ones doing it,” Popovich said. “I think they are all buying into that really well.”
There will be more headaches for Walton along the way, but even the most avid Spurs fans should hope for a Lakers resurgence.
Hasn’t it always been more fun competing against the Lakers when they were at their best?