It’s one of the great stress tests in professional basketball — stop the San Antonio Spurs for 48 minutes.
In their 20th straight season of winning basketball, few, if any, teams in the NBA are more committed to their principles, to a system of winning that’s withstood injuries, aging and anything else in their way.
Each possession can require 24 seconds worth of expert defense, the slightest break in concentration resulting in a wide-open shot at the rim or behind the three-point line.
And defending the Spurs is a lot like trying to beat the Spurs — an incomplete effort very likely will end in defeat.
The Lakers were at that point in the third quarter of Thursday’s 93-81 win at Staples Center — a moment where the Spurs were about to step on the accelerator and leave the inferior team in its exhaust.
A 19-point lead had disappeared, the Spurs had stolen a one-point lead, and it was on an inexperienced Lakers team to handle the blow.
And finally, they held up to the pressure.
“We responded like a team that has failed a lot — and got sick of it,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “We were at that same point. We’ve seen that same point many times this year when we’re playing good, we have a lead, and the other team goes on a run.
“And, then we stall out a little in the second half.”
But thanks to an active defense and some timely shot-making, the Lakers’ engine didn’t sputter.
After trailing 53-52 midway through the third quarter, the Lakers rattled off a 16-4 run to give themselves a little cushion on the way to their season-best third straight win.
Before Thursday’s game, Walton spoke about the Spurs with the reverence that they deserve. They are, after all, the NBA’s surest bet, its sturdiest building. And the Lakers? At this point, they’re merely a speculative blueprint.
But instead of deferring to the Spurs, the Lakers dictated the action on both sides of the court.
Brandon Ingram aggressively attacked the basket, scoring 26 points. His 21 field-goal attempts tied a career high.
And for rookie Lonzo Ball, he looked unfazed in his first glimpse of the Spurs’ traditionally stout defense. He continued to shoot the ball better since returning from a shoulder injury four games ago, making four of seven shots from three-point range.
In his last four games, Ball is shooting 36.7% on threes after shooting less than 30% prior to the injury.
Ball finished with 18 points on seven-for-11 shooting to go along with 10 rebounds and six assists.
LaMarcus Aldridge led the Spurs with 20 points, but the Lakers’ bench — thanks largely to Larry Nance Jr. — outscored the San Antonio reserves 35-14. The Lakers were 29 points better than the Spurs with Nance on the floor Thursday night.
“Brandon was huge down the stretch, Zo was great throughout, different guys at different times made really big plays for us,” Walton said. “But I thought Larry’s play, from the first time he checked in until leaving him in for the entire rest of the second half, he was putting out fires on defense, guarding bigger players. He was just all over the place.”
One of those places was high above the rim, where he caught Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s overthrown lob for a one-handed slam.
The pass was too high, Caldwell-Pope thought, and after it got slammed home, he sighed in relief.
For the Lakers, there was room to be relieved Thursday.
After starting the season with a defensive intensity, those principles and the ability to execute got slowly whittled away during the grind of the season. But Thursday, they were back.
San Antonio turned the ball over 21 times leading to 32 Lakers points. Caldwell-Pope and Ball combined for nine of the Lakers’ 15 steals. And, the Spurs shot just 40.8% with only three players managing to score in double figures.
Sure, they were missing star forward Kawhi Leonard and guards Danny Green and Tony Parker. But, they’re still the Spurs. Injuries or not, they still force you to be near your best.
And Thursday, the Lakers were.
“We stayed true to ourselves. We stayed together. We made the right plays,” Ingram said. “They had a couple guys out, but it definitely builds our confidence going into the next game, especially on the defensive end.