The Face Off That Gets Better With Age

SAN ANTONIO TX - DECEMBER 28: Guard Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers takes a shot against Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs at AT&T Center on December 28 2010 in San Antonio Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and/or using this photograph user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The Spurs and Lakers meet in San Antonio on Wednesday night, and against all odds, they're still standing atop the Western Conference, more than a decade after their battles first started. The dynasties just won't die.

When looking at the Lakers and Spurs, it's important to think back to one of the most ridiculous action movies of the past 25 years. We're talking about Face/Off here, and Kobe Bryant is Castor Troy, the sociopath terrorist setting fire to everything around him. Tim Duncan is Sean Archer, the FBI agent who's so criminally boring you'd almost rather root for the sociopath terrorist. But there's a twist in the NBA version. Instead of switching identities with futuristic face-swapping surgery, the faces of the Spurs and Lakers have eventually become the same.

Star-divide

It wasn't supposed to happen this way. The Lakers were supposed to self-destruct early on, panic and trade Pau for sixty cents on the dollar. Players would blame Mike Brown, and after a first round playoff exit, their fans could spend the summer blaming David Stern's veto for ruining their season. This season was going to be like an extended sequel to the Mavericks series last year.

Likewise, the Spurs were supposed to crumble under the weight of a compressed schedule -- all their injuries issues would be compounded, Manu would break down, Duncan would fossilize, and teams like the Grizzlies would leap past them for good, and they'd be left with guys like Danny Green carrying the flickering torch of their one-time dynasty. This was the script. One team would burn out in an explosive mess, the other would quietly fade away.

What's happened instead is kind of great.

With a mix of overlooked young players, over-the-hill veterans and Matt Bonner, the Spurs have become one of the most enjoyable teams in the NBA. The team that used to be a grinding, miserable testament to "Playing The Right Way" has given way to an uptempo juggernaut that scores as well as anyone in basketball. They're third in points-per-game (102.8), and a tenth of a point behind OKC for the league-lead in offensive efficiency (107.2).

They count on guys like Danny Green, DeJuan Blair and Kawhi Leonard, and those guys have actually been coming through. Meanwhile, Duncan's not an MVP but he's been solid all year, Manu is healthy and back to wreaking havoc again, and the longer Tony Parker plays as well as he has this year, the more airtight his case becomes as the most underappreciated player of this generation. The Spurs are sitting at second in the West.

Meanwhile ... the Lakers have spent the past four months hearing everyone trumpet their downfall, but even after trade rumors, Kobe rants, Bynum tantrums and coaching controversies, they're sitting at third in the West, ready to go to war in the playoffs. And once they get there, there's a good chance it'll be San Antonio waiting for them in the second round. Neither team will die, so they might as well end up in a shootout with each other.

There's a common thread here that goes back to what we expected to happen this season. The compressed schedule was supposed to push the Spurs closer to oblivion and tear the Lakers apart, but in a weird way, all it's done is amplify what sets them apart from would-be challengers.

When you're playing games every other night, an intangible like "conditioning" becomes twice as valuable. If the shorter season comes as a shock to younger teams, it's par for the course for guys like Kobe, Pau, Duncan, and Manu. Every season feels compressed when you're old; the stars on the Lakers and Spurs have been working around it for a few years now. Older players have naturally evolved to learn how to pace themselves better than their younger counterparts; this year is when "pacing yourself" is as important as any skill in the NBA.

Plus, there's pride involved here. The Lakers have been more inconsistent than the Spurs, but in general, neither team is going to roll over against anyone. Gregg Popovich is too stubborn to let his team do it, and Kobe is too psychotic to let the Lakers do what the Mavericks have done this year. And weirdly, both those qualities have become endearing this year.

This story will change in the playoffs. L.A. and San Antonio have spent the better part of a decade coasting through the regular season and biding their time until the playoffs, so they know better than anyone that talent trumps all in a seven-game series. Beating OKC or Memphis is easier on the tail-end of a back-to-back than over seven games with rest in between. But the Spurs and Lakers aren't dead yet, and if we wrote them off in December, the past four months are reason enough to pause in April.

This is how the yin and the yang of the West Elite have become the same basic idea. They've both evolved from what used to make them great, but if they're not totally dominant anymore, they're deceptively dangerous. Picking against them in a playoff series will be as terrifying as ever. They're definitely beatable, but then they just keep winning.

I've spent most of the past decade hating both these teams, just like millions of other basketball fans. When they played each other a few years ago, I was always for the meteor. But as a basketball fan, it's been different this year. It's like last year's playoffs were a wake, this season was supposed to be the funeral -- only, as everybody got nostalgic about what they used to be, these teams are still here. Now, they play in San Antonio Wednesday with playoff seeding on the line for both teams, and it's going to be war.

Star-divide

Speaking of nostalgia ... Face/Off ends with a speedboat chase where John Travolta is firing a machine gun at Nicolas Cage and a police boat at the same time. Then Cage crashes into said police boat (which explodes and acts as a fiery jump ramp for his speedboat), at which point he jumps onto Travolta's boat as his abandoned boat explodes into a pier. Eventually the Travolta's boat washes up on a beach, setting the stage for Cage and Travolta to battle to the death in hand-to-hand combat. We don't know if this is how things end for Duncan's Spurs and Kobe's Lakers, but how can you root for anything else?

X
Log In Sign Up

forgot?
Log In Sign Up

Please choose a new SB Nation username and password

As part of the new SB Nation launch, prior users will need to choose a permanent username, along with a new password.

Your username will be used to login to SB Nation going forward.

I already have a Vox Media account!

Verify Vox Media account

Please login to your Vox Media account. This account will be linked to your previously existing Eater account.

Please choose a new SB Nation username and password

As part of the new SB Nation launch, prior MT authors will need to choose a new username and password.

Your username will be used to login to SB Nation going forward.

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

By becoming a registered user, you are also agreeing to our Terms and confirming that you have read our Privacy Policy.

Join SBNation.com

You must be a member of SBNation.com to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at SBNation.com. You should read them.

Join SBNation.com

You must be a member of SBNation.com to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at SBNation.com. You should read them.

Spinner.vc97ec6e

Authenticating

Great!

Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.