NBA: West final capsule: Lakers to win in 5
No. 1 LOS ANGELES LAKERS (57-25, 8-2) vs. No. 3 SAN ANTONIO SPURS (56-26, 8-4), starting today in Los Angeles.
Season Series: Tied 2-2, with each team winning both its home games. The Spurs were never at full strength in Los Angeles, missing Tim Duncan and Tony Parker in their first loss and Manu Ginobili on April 13, when the Lakers rolled to a 106-85 victory to clinch the Pacific Division title. That was the only meeting after the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol. Kobe Bryant averaged 24.3 points for the Lakers, while Parker scored 20.7 per game for the Spurs. Ginobili managed just 14.3 on 31-percent shooting.
Storyline: The sixth postseason meeting between the Western Conference powers in the last 10 years, but the first since 2004. The Spurs knocked out the Lakers on their way to titles in 1999 and 2003, while the Lakers eliminated the Spurs in 2001, '02 and '04, winning championships the first two times.
Key Matchup I: Bryant vs. Bruce Bowen. Bowen, perhaps the league's best perimeter defender, tries to contain the NBA's MVP. Bryant, the leading scorer in the playoffs with 33.3 points per game, said the back injury that slowed him in the second round is healed. Bowen will certainly try to find out if that's true, using his physical defensive tendencies that have annoyed plenty of opponents. And the Lakers better be alert when Bowen has the ball. He made 12 of 15 3-pointers and averaged 12.3 points against Los Angeles, his best performance against any opponent.
Key Matchup II: Derek Fisher vs. Parker. Spurs fans need no reminder that Fisher is a clutch postseason performer, recalling his game-winning jumper with 0.4 seconds left in the Lakers' Game 5 victory at San Antonio in 2004. He is averaging 11.9 points in the playoffs, shooting 51 percent from the floor and making 17 of 29 3-pointers. He might be more important defensively, because the Lakers must control Parker's penetration and keep the NBA finals MVP out of the paint. If Fisher can't do it, Bryant may have to expend energy to guard him.
X-Factor: Ime Udoka. Bowen's backup seemed to win coach Gregg Popovich's trust in the latter half of the second round and played well during his extended minutes, making 11 of 17 3-pointers (65 percent) in the final four games. He should get some chances to check Bryant.
Prediction: Lakers in 5.