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Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs set for latest chapter of historic NBA rivalry

Watch Los Angeles Lakers @ San Antonio Spurs live on Sky Sports Main Event, Sunday 1.30am

DeMar DeRozan #10 of the San Antonio Spurs and LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers watch a freethrow during a 143-142 Spurs win at Staples Center on October 22, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.
Image: There are new faces on both the LA Lakers and San Antonio Spurs this season

The rivalry that dominated the NBA throughout the noughties might just be back, only instead of competing for championships, the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs look set to battle it out for the final play-off places in the Western Conference.

With both franchises in transitional phases after a summer that saw the Spurs lose a superstar in Kawhi Leonard and the Lakers gain the superstar in LeBron James, uncertainty has been apparent in both camps.

Los Angeles Lakers @ San Antonio Spurs

Live on Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports Arena, Saturday 1:30am

The pair played out perhaps the most entertaining game of the season so far in Los Angeles on Monday as the Spurs pulled off a dramatic 143-142 overtime victory, leaving the Lakers with a score to settle in San Antonio on Saturday night.

 LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots the ball against the San Antonio Spurs on October 22, 2018 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. 3:31
Highlights of the San Antonio Spurs' trip to the LA Lakers in week two of the NBA

However, the rivalry goes back much further than that, specifically to when the two teams picked up generational talents from successive drafts in the mid-1990s.

The Lakers acquired Kobe Bryant, the 13th pick in the 1996 Draft, through a trade with the Charlotte Hornets. A year later the Spurs selected Tim Duncan with the top pick.

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The young duo's first play-off meeting would come in the 1999 conference semi-finals, which the Spurs won 4-0 on their way to a maiden title under head coach Gregg Popovich.

Kobe Bryant #8 of the Los Angeles Lakers greets Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs before Game five of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2003 NBA Playoffs at SBC Center on May 13, 2003 in San Antonio, Texas. The Spurs won 96-94.
Image: Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant were ever-present as the Spurs and Lakers dominated the NBA

That began a remarkable streak of dominance by the two teams, which would see them share nine championships over 12 seasons, with the 2006 Dallas Mavericks the only other team to win the Western Conference during that time.

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The Lakers appeared to have come out of that battle victorious, winning five titles - all coming during Phil Jackson's two spells in charge - to the Spurs' four and holding a 4-2 record in their play-off meetings.

However, it could be argued the Spurs won the war. As the Lakers declined, Popovich - still armed with his core of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili - adapted, never missing the play-offs, before sweeping the Lakers in the first round on their way to the 2013 finals.

Head coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs talks to Tim Duncan #21 and Tony Parker #9 on the bench in the third quarter while taking on the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Two of the Western Conference Finals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center on May 29, 2012 in San Antonio, Texas
Image: Popovich had unparalleled continuity at San Antonio with the likes of Duncan and Tony Parker

They came up marginally short to the James-led Miami Heat, but gained revenge the following year as the emerging Leonard and the old guard combined to earn Popovich his fifth title, drawing level with the Lakers (NBA titles won since 1999).

Meanwhile, with injuries limiting Bryant's participation, the Lakers began a streak of five seasons without reaching the play-offs.

The Spurs' remarkable consistency continued even as the 'big three' aged and only the creation of a number of Western Conference powerhouses, most notably the Golden State Warriors, have denied Popovich more finals appearances.

Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs and Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers stand together during the game on January 12, 2010 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. The Spurs won 105-85
Image: Bryant and Duncan both retired in 2016

Duncan retired in 2016, Ginobili followed suit at the end of last season and Parker left to pursue a new experience with the Charlotte Hornets. It was time to hand the keys over to Leonard, only he didn't want them.

A dispute over how an injury to Leonard's left quad was treated spiralled out of control and the two-time Defensive Player of the Year submitted a trade request, much to the dismay of Popovich and an organisation famed for its stability and lack of drama.

Attempts to persuade Leonard to stay failed and the Spurs made the best trade available, acquiring All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan from the Toronto Raptors.

Kawhi Leonard #2 and Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs talk against the Portland Trail Blazers on December 15, 2014 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon.
Image: Popovich guided Kawhi Leonard to stardom before the two-time Defensive Player of the Year handed in a trade request

After years of profiting from a cohesive playing style that encouraged players to share the ball, the trade has left the Spurs with an offence built around two isolation scorers in DeRozan and fellow All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge.

Under just about any other coach in the league, the Spurs roster would be written off as unworkable in the modern game, but in his 22 years at the helm Popovich has made just about everything work, which highlights the other question mark hanging over the organisation.

It remains to be seen how long Popovich, who took time off following the death of his wife during last year's play-offs, will carry on for. He turns 70 in January and took over as head coach of the US men's national team in 2016.

Tyreke Evans #12 of the Indiana Pacers shoots the ball against the San Antonio Spurs on October 24, 2018 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. 1:14
Highlights of the Indiana Pacers' trip to the San Antonio Spurs in week two of the NBA

He is sure to guide them to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, but with little prospect of another championship run in San Antonio, could see that as the perfect way to end his coaching career.

As they spent years watching the Spurs cruise along, the one thing the Lakers were able to do was amass young talent via the draft. Then as things began to unravel in San Antonio, the pendulum swung as James made a blockbuster free agency move from his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to LA.

The four-year deal James signed with the Lakers has ensured a return to relevance - and likely the play-offs - for the league's most glamorous franchise.

JaVale McGee #7 of the Los Angeles Lakers dunks the ball against the Denver Nuggets on October 25, 2018 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. 2:46
Highlights of the Denver Nuggets' trip to the Los Angeles Lakers in week two of the NBA

However, the greatest player of his generation brings some baggage. James was reportedly influential with roster and coaching changes in Cleveland and everyone apart from 'the King' will be out to prove their worth.

With little room for a slow start in the loaded West, the Spurs have begun the season 2-2, while the Lakers appear to have turned a corner, winning two in a row after losing their opening three games.

They may not be competing for a championship, but with both franchises at a crossroads, the stakes are high.

Saturday night's games

  • Boston Celtics @ Detroit Pistons, 12am
  • Utah Jazz @ New Orleans Pelicans, 12am
  • Chicago Bulls @ Atlanta Hawks, 12:30am
  • Indiana Pacers @ Cleveland Cavaliers, 12:30am
  • Charlotte Hornets @ Philadelphia 76ers, 12:30am
  • Portland Trail Blazers @ Miami Heat, 1am
  • Orlando Magic @ Milwaukee Bucks, 1:30am
  • Los Angeles Lakers @ San Antonio Spurs, live on SSME/SS Arena, 1:30am
  • Phoenix Suns @ Memphis Grizzlies, 1:30am

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