The San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers have ruled the Western Conference for most of the last decade, combining for nine of the last 10 conference titles and seven league championships in that span.
The way both are playing to start 2009, it wouldn’t be surprising to see that trend continue this spring.
Their season series will begin on Wednesday in San Antonio, as the teams meet for the first time since Los Angeles quickly ousted the Spurs in last season’s conference finals.
Los Angeles came within two games of its fourth NBA title of the decade last season, but lost to Boston in the finals. Over the past 10 seasons, they remain one championship shy of San Antonio’s four league titles since 1999.
Last May’s series marked the sixth playoff meeting in the last decade for these clubs, which again appear to be the class of the West.
Coach Phil Jackson’s Lakers have emerged as the team to beat after eliminating the Spurs 4-1 last season and charging to a 31-6 start to 2008-09.
“They’re the best team in the West, maybe the best team in the league, and that says it all,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “They’ve done a great job at both ends of the court, and they knocked us out of the playoffs last year, so we know as much or more than anybody how good they are.”
The Lakers have won four straight games and 10 of their last 11, averaging 108.5 points over that span - more than 30 of them per game from Kobe Bryant.
Bryant had 33 in Los Angeles’ 105-100 win at Houston on Tuesday. Although he made just 13 of his season-high 32 shot attempts, the reigning NBA MVP scored 13 points in the fourth quarter including a key 3-pointer with 27 seconds to play.
“My shots felt good, they just weren’t going in for me,” Bryant said. “Once the fourth quarter came around, I had to focus even more to try to put the ball in the hole.”
The Spurs (24-12) faltered in the final quarter of their most recent game, giving up 31 points en route to a 105-98 home loss to Orlando on Sunday. Tony Parker’s 31 total points weren’t enough for San Antonio, which has won nine of its last 11 games despite the setback.
Manu Ginobili, who missed time early this season with an ankle injury, continues to struggle to get untracked. He’s shooting a career-worst 33.3 percent from 3-point range and averaging 14.5 points - five fewer than last season.
“I am still not feeling like myself last season at this point,” said Ginobili, who played through injury in the postseason and was held to 10 or fewer points in four of the five games against the Lakers.
“I am physically pretty good. Nothing is hurting,” Ginobili added. “It’s just a bit of probably mental and other confidence.”
On Wednesday, the Spurs may lean on Tim Duncan, who has averaged 23.0 points and 12.8 rebounds in 68 career games against Los Angeles including playoffs.
The home team won all four games in the 2007-08 regular-season series.
“It tells you where you stand,” Ginobili said of facing the Lakers. “… It makes you see the mistakes you made, how far you are from them and stuff like that. I wish we played them 10 times (per season).”