Spurs nip Lakers in a beauty

The NBA regular season is tedious enough to put even the most ardent basketball fan to sleep, but there are a few matchups that will perk those ears up real fast — and the Lakers/Spurs is one of them.

The two teams didn’t disappoint tonight. It looked like the Spurs were going to win this one in a walk — they were up 100-89 with 8:05 to play, but the Lakers fought back behind Kobe Bryant (29p, 10r, 7a) and Josh Powell, who hit three clutch shots as part of a 11-2 run. With Pau Gasol guarding him (and Andrew Bynum sent to the bench) Tim Duncan (20p, 10r, 8a) made a pair of shots to give the Spurs a 109-108 lead with 0:28 to play.

Sixteen seconds later, Kobe made a clutch three-pointer to give the Lakers a two point lead. He even did the Sam Cassell “big balls” dance as the teams went to a timeout…

But Kobe celebrated too early. On the Spurs’ next possession, Roger Mason hit a clutch two-pointer from the corner and was fouled awkwardly from behind by Derek Fisher. He hit the free throw to give the Spurs a one-point lead. The Spurs double-teamed Kobe on the next play and he gave the ball up to Trevor Ariza near the top of the key. Ariza drove and there was some (no-call) contact with Ginobili, and he was called for traveling. It wasn’t a travel, but the shot didn’t fall and the game was over anyway.

(Catch the highlights here.)

It was a nice comeback, but their vulnerability at small forward continues to plague the Lakers. Ariza is a good player, but right now he doesn’t seem comfortable making a play in the clutch. Smart teams are going to double Kobe to get the ball out of his hands. Unless you can force him into a difficult, deep trey, you’re better off taking your chances with Ariza, Luke Walton, Lamar Odom or whoever else is out there. I know I wouldn’t want to take the game-winner knowing that Kobe will be there bitching me out if I happen to miss.

As for the Spurs, they have to be feeling good about two of their offseason acquisitions — Roger Mason and George Hill. Mason has been clutch all season and he did a pretty nice job making life (somewhat) difficult for Kobe with little or no help. For a rookie, Hill looks confident and is a very capable backup for Tony Parker, who looked oddly out of sorts when the Lakers made their run.

It was a great game. The Lakers are still the class of the West, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this was a preview of the Conference Finals.

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