Samaki Walker spent the past few days making one thing clear to his taunting teammates: Those weren't his San Antonio Spurs, swept by the Lakers in the Western Conference finals last spring.
Oh, he wore the uniform, practiced hard and gratefully took the paycheck.
But he barely played by the end, and by the time the Lakers rolled through town on their way to the NBA finals, he was fairly certain the Spurs would not spend the $3.3 million to bring him back.
He understood his destiny, Walker said, just as the Spurs knew theirs', barely a game into that series. He sat in their huddles and locker room, so he knew their hopelessness.
"To be perfectly honest, the fire wasn't there after the first game," Walker said Friday afternoon before boarding a flight to San Antonio, where the Lakers and Spurs will meet today for the first time since the conference finals.
"I saw guys, Terry Porter [for one], guys who I thought were [leaders] on the team, it seemed like they lost a lot of faith, a lot of energy, like they lost their intensity," he said. "I thought we felt like we couldn't beat the Lakers. We [believed] the hype. We knew they were on a roll. At the time, we had the best record in the NBA. I think we succumbed to all the hype, the attention the Lakers were getting. We came in like we were the underdogs and played like it. And believed it."
The question now, do they still believe it? And, even if they don't today--with Shaquille O'Neal serving the last of his three-game suspension and the Lakers utterly and momentarily vulnerable-- what about tomorrow? What about June?
"Realistically," Walker said, "I think they are a better team with some of their new additions. But, I don't think there's ever an answer for Shaquille and Kobe [Bryant]. I don't think they'll ever come up with an answer.
"I think the triangle offense is too powerful. When it's run right on this team, when this team becomes the team we feel we can be in playoff time, I don't think there's any team that can beat us, for the simple fact that we have the guys in the offense that can make it happen. I don't think they have the capabilities to stop us."
Today's game has the potential to be a different matter.
The Lakers have lost three of four, including once to the Chicago Bulls and once to the Miami Heat, and now they'll have to win 46 consecutive games over three months to break the Bulls' record of 72 wins in a season.
That seems unlikely, given they have to play the Bulls and Heat again, not to mention Golden State and Memphis.
The Spurs could present an even larger challenge, given the Lakers' current lack of interior girth. But, no one is talking about this as a playoff preview--though it almost certainly is, and no one is hyping payback, though the Spurs most certainly are.
"If this was March, we could maybe gauge ourselves," Laker forward Robert Horry said. "But, it's not March."
So, instead, perhaps only Walker will measure himself, against Tim Duncan, his former practice matchup, and against his former team, which did not feel him worth the money.
"I can't downplay it," Walker said. "It's definitely a big game."
In his last four games, Derek Fisher has made 17 of 28 three-point attempts. He is shooting 43.0 %, 20th in the league.... The Lakers are 4-3 without O'Neal, 43-29 in the past six seasons.... LiquidSeats and the Clippers have made tickets for Wednesday's Laker-Clipper game available at StubHub.com.
at San Antonio
Noon, Channel 4
Records--Lakers 27-9, Spurs 27-10.
Record vs. Spurs (2000-01)--2-2.
Update--Bruce Bowen and Tony Parker are recovering from injuries, forcing Coach Gregg Popovich to press the Spurs' depth. In his second start of the season, Charles Smith had 19 points and six rebounds in a four-point victory against Utah on Thursday night. He had 21 points two nights before against Washington. Stephen Jackson and Antonio Daniels also are getting more playing time. Parker, the rookie point guard, sprained his ankle Monday against New Jersey. Bowen has a broken finger.... Duncan, averaging 25.4 points and 12.9 rebounds, scored 35 points Thursday. He has led the Spurs in scoring in 19 consecutive games.... David Robinson, at 36, has lost fourth-quarter minutes in recent weeks to the younger, quicker Malik Rose.... Like the Lakers, the Spurs have been spotty since a quick start. They were 20-4 and are 7-6 since.