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Bill Plaschke

Forget the Fear Factor; Spurs Didn't Seem Very Afraid

May 06, 2003|Bill Plaschke

SAN ANTONIO — Another playoff series opener, another statement game for the world's most filibustering basketball team.

Only this time, a different statement.

Uh-oh. It is only one game. It is only one loss. It is only San Antonio.

But what happened in the 87-82 loss to the Spurs in the conference semifinals Monday is as serious as a broken aura.

If Laker fans are not concerned, then they weren't watching Devean George writhing, Manu Ginobili flying and an entire city bouncing.

"We're rolling," said Malik Rose of the Spurs. "We feel like we're rolling."

If Laker fans think this is still going to be easy, then they weren't listening to Phil Jackson whining, Shaquille O'Neal shouting and an entire city sighing.

"The Lakers are a basketball team just like we're a basketball team," said Speedy Claxton of the Spurs.

"No different."

The game began with the Lakers remaining in their locker room during the national anthem, with O'Neal sitting on the bench and glaring during Tim Duncan's MVP presentation.

They're paying attention now.

In front of 18,797 thundering fans at the SBC Center, some of the tools that the Lakers have used in winning three consecutive championships were stolen in the chaos.

They have always won with two good small forwards. Now they have none.

In the first seconds of the fourth quarter, a collision with Ginobili left George rolling around in such pain his teammates scurried to surround him and hide his agony.

But they can't hide his loss.

George left the building on crutches, and the Lakers finished the game hobbling with Brian Shaw trying to guard Ginobili.

Shaw mostly failed, with Ginobili scoring eight points in the fourth quarter to go with his two steals, including a pick of Shaw that led to the fastbreak that led to the George injury.

George's left ankle is severely sprained. He has never recovered quickly from injuries.

If history holds and they lose him for the rest of the series, they will lose their best chance to slow the Spurs' quickness.

"I don't feel like poor Lakers, we lost another player," Kobe Bryant said.

"It's a challenge. That's all it is."

Easy for him to say. He can create his own shots. Another tool that the Lakers lost Monday was the ability of O'Neal to attract enough attention that other players are left open.

Well, the Spurs have decided to mostly play him one-on-one, pounding him with David Robinson's hands, Rose's arms and Duncan's elbows.

This left O'Neal exhausted. The supporting Lakers covered for him and the result was an eight-for-28 shooting night by everyone else but Bryant and O'Neal.

Said Rose: "What happened tonight was huge."

Countered Bryant: "Our bench contributes a lot of intangibles. You can't just look at the statistics."

Oh, but sometimes you can.

How rudderless were the champions in the face of the sort of team defense that led the Spurs to four victories in their four regular-season meetings with the Lakers?

The Lakers' 11 team assists tie a franchise playoff low. It was last set in 1999 during, you guessed it, a sweep by the Spurs.

And how aggressive were the Spurs in going to the basket, something most Laker opponents fear because of O'Neal?

The Spurs shot 23 more free throws than the Lakers. Duncan shot two more free throws -- 14 -- than the entire Laker team.

You can guess the content of Jackson's opening postgame statement.

"The difference in the game was obviously the foul shots," he said. "That's ridiculous in a game as hotly contested as that."

He added, "Tim Duncan had more free throws than my team? I know it was his MVP night, but that's ridiculous."

Indeed, on a night when O'Neal fouled out to turn the Lakers into a one-man team with 3:26 remaining -- making it difficult to overcome an six-point deficit at the time -- the officiating seemed one-sided.

Then again, during these championship runs, how many times have the Lakers benefited from the same sort of calls?

Most telling about Jackson's criticism, perhaps, is that he felt it necessary in the first place.

Could he be playing the mind games that his players could not play?

Has he ever complained like this after a playoff game against a team that the Lakers have wiped out in the previous two springs, winning eight of nine playoff games against the Spurs before Monday?

The most important tool taken from the Lakers, then, was perhaps this: The one inside their heads.

Before Monday, they thought the Spurs were intimidated. The Spurs were also worried they were intimidated. Blowing fourth-quarter leads in every playoff loss last year proved they probably were intimidated.

Before the game, Shaw said, "We'll have to wait until the final minutes of a close game and see what happens. But if we get on one of our rolls, all that stuff from the past might start rising up in their minds."

Well, during the final minutes of this close game, Bryant started sinking three pointers and Duncan began making tentative passes and Spur shots rolled out and....

"And it didn't bother us," Rose said. "We played through it. We kept fighting."

It was the Lakers who lost their composure, what with Robert Horry swiping David Robinson below the belt for a technical foul.

It was the Lakers who were forced into a corner, what with Bryant being run out of bounds while attempting a three-pointer that could have tied the score in the final minute.

It was the Spurs who survived with a win despite shooting only 37.5%, making only 60% of their free throws and being outrebounded by 12.

"We're just getting started," said Claxton, which is exactly what the Lakers used to say.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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