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Coach Is Hotter Than the Spurs

Commentary: Popovich says some of his players didn't show up for Lakers' surprisingly easy victory.


SAN ANTONIO — So much for that rivalry.

Even with Shaquille O'Neal out, the San Antonio Spurs took a low-key approach to Saturday's rematch of last spring's Western Conference finalists, conceding the Lakers were better ahead of the fact, "the best in basketball right now," as Coach Gregg Popovich put it.

With nine new players and the fourth-best record in the West when the day started, Popovich is thinking long-term, hoping to improve enough by April to be a worthy challenger.

Of course, he didn't think they were going to have to improve that much.

"We didn't compete for 48 minutes," a smoldering Popovich said after the Spurs had fallen by 17 points, wisps of smoke seeming to curl from his ears.

"Also, we need to get some better performances out of some people.

This seemed pointed at David Robinson. The once-revered Admiral, now 36 and openly critiqued around town, missed all six of his shots in the first half, opened the second with a 15-foot airball and spent the fourth quarter on the bench, finishing with four points and eight rebounds.

The loquacious, gracious Robinson, who is known for never ducking out on the press, no matter how bad things are, ducked out on the press.

Without the suspended O'Neal and two injured San Antonio starters--rookie point guard Tony Parker and forward Bruce Bowen--the game, carried by NBC, had lost its original marquee value long before tipoff.

Of course, the Spurs could still look at it as a two-step approach to getting over their fears of the Lakers, who had swept and humiliated them last spring:

1) The Spurs would win on their home court, with no O'Neal.

2) Thus emboldened, the Spurs could try it again against the Lakers with Shaq in Friday's return bout in Los Angeles.

Speaking for the competitor in them, Popovich said he wanted O'Neal there so the Spurs could get a better reading on where they were.

Speaking for himself, the Spurs' Malik Rose said he didn't mind missing Shaq at all. Noting all the opposing stars who had missed games here this season--Chris Webber, Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Ray Allen--Rose called it "the curse of the Alamodome."

"I appreciate it," Rose added. "Any game you don't have to deal with [O'Neal] is great."

It didn't turn out to be so great, or any first step, either.

The Spurs jumped out to a 12-3 lead. So much for their highlights.

First, they let the Lakers back into the game before Kobe Bryant started to play well, not a good idea.

Second, they got outhustled, as Mark Madsen beat them to one loose ball after another.

Then Bryant got hot in the second half.

Then Tim Duncan, the gold standard himself, skilled, hard-nosed and unfailingly competitive, seemed to succumb to the malaise, scoring but two points in the fourth quarter against Robert Horry, whom he used to take apart, missing his last five shots.

In one late sequence with the Lakers up, 88-77, Duncan got the ball in the lane, went up but had the ball stripped away by Horry.

Recovering the ball, Duncan went back up and was stripped by Derek Fisher, who made a 15-footer at the other end.

Duncan wound up with two points in the final quarter, as many as Horry and fewer than Madsen (four) or Slava Medvedenko (six), whom the Spurs knew little about, although he gave them an eyeful Saturday.

"We didn't play hard for 48 minutes as a unit," point guard Antonio Daniels said.

So why hadn't they played hard for 48 minutes as a unit, in a game that meant so much to them?

"I don't know," Daniels said. "It's unexplainable."

It's not so unexplainable. The game was a freebie for the Lakers, who weren't expected to win and had no pressure on them.

Also, the Lakers are better, and a lot deeper, than the team that put the Spurs away last spring.

"Turns out the game wasn't meaningless after all," said San Antonio News-Express columnist Buck Harvey. "It was only meaningless if the Spurs won."

Whatever it means, the Spurs can't like it.

Let's just say they have a lot of work to do between now and Friday.

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