Through much of the Spurs tenure in San Antonio the Lakers have been their No. 1 rival. A franchise with 16 NBA titles, the Lakers were despised by the bulk of Spurs fans, not only for blocking the Spurs’ path to the NBA Finals on numerous occasions, but also for their glitzy personae and perceived arrogance. But of such rivalries comes competitive excellence, and Gregg Popovich appreciated what the rivalry did to motivate his teams.
Little wonder, then, that when the Lakers, in 2004, broke up the core of a roster that had been to four Finals in the previous five seasons, trading Shaquille O’Neal to the Miami Heat, the Spurs head coach likened the deal to a massive geo-political disruption.
“The competitive part of me feels like the Soviet Union just disbanded,” Popovich said then.
Recently, however, the Lakers hadn’t held up their part of the rivalry. With superstar scorer Kobe Bryant battling injuries and age, Los Angeles went 27-55 in 2013-14, 21-61 in 2014-15 and, last season, a horrendous 17-65. It was the worst record in franchise history, and the 2015-16 Lakers finished dead last in the Western Conference.
Through those three seasons, the Spurs compiled a 9-2 record against the Lakers and won a fifth NBA title.
But serial incompetence on the court brings with it high draft picks, and the Lakers used three straight years of lottery picks to re-stock and return to competitive status, as the Spurs discovered on their way to a 116-107 win at The Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles on Friday, their fifth straight. They remained perfect on the road, 7-0. Only the 2010-11 Spurs, who won their first 10 road games, had a better road start in franchise history.
The Lakers entered Friday’s game with a 7-5 record that included a win over the defending Western Conference champion Warriors and they made the Spurs battle to the finish to extend their most recent win streak.
Never mind that the Spurs had a 17-point lead, 93-76, after a Pau Gasol dunk that began the fourth quarter. Last season’s Lakers likely would have packed it in under similar circumstances, but new coach Luke Walton has his team playing more competitively, no matter the score.
The Lakers’ response to the Spurs’ seemingly safe lead was a 17-5 run that kept things dicey until the final minute, when Tony Parker nailed a clutch, 20-foot jumper over Lakers power forward Larry Nance, Jr., to extend a Spurs lead to 113-107 with 33.6 seconds left.
“Luke’s done a great job of making them believe and playing aggressively, and you can really see it,” Popovich said. “They came back and stuck it to us, and so in the second half we had a good third quarter like we wanted to win the game. We got after it and executed better, but I am just so impressed of what he (Luke Walton) has done with this group.”
Parker finished the game with 16 points and seven assists, one of seven Spurs who scored in double figures. Both LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard scored 23 points, Aldridge getting 13 of his in the fourth period.
Leonard had his most complete game of the season, falling three assists shy of a triple-double. He matched his season high rebounds, with 12, and had a new season high in assists, with seven.
Walton knows a thing or two about coaching a team to score points in bunches. Last season, he guided the NBA’s highest scoring team, the Golden State Warriors, to a 39-4 record while head coach Steve Kerr recovered from off-season back surgery. His Lakers team doesn’t have Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, but on Friday night Lou Williams, Jordan Clarkson and Nick Young did a passable impression of the three high-scoring Warriors stars, combining for 66 points.
The Lakers blitzed the Spurs for 36 points in the second quarter and 31 in the fourth, and the Spurs needed the double-figure scoring they got from seven players – Aldridge (23), Leonard (23), Parker (16), Pau Gasol (16), Patty Mills (11), Danny Green (10) and Manu Ginobili (10).
“(The Lakers) just look more comfortable,” Leonard said. “Those guys are getting an experience level. They were pretty young the past couple years. Luke Walton is a good coach, I feel like he’s going to turn it around for them, and they’re working hard and playing hard.”
Popovich achieved a minor milestone with the win, the 1,099th of his 20-plus seasons on the Spurs bench. He broke from a tie with former Spurs coach Larry Brown for seventh on the all-time NBA coaching win list.
Friday’s game was the first Spurs-Lakers game since 1997 without Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant on the respective rosters of the two teams. Both players retired in July, Bryant after a flashy farewell tour during which he was feted at his final game in every NBA city; Duncan without a hint of fanfare, via a team press release.
Bryant, of course, was the Laker most hated by Spurs fans, though the most sophisticated appreciated his singular skills, as Popovich did. In a pre-game interview with KENS-TV broadcaster Bill Land, Popovich joked that it might be fun to watch the game with his favorite retired stars.
“Maybe Kobe, Shaq, and Timmy will come and I’ll sit with them,” Popovich said.
Instead, he watched from the bench and saw a Lakers team worthy of the long rivalry that has made them Spurs Enemy No. 1.