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Texas-Sized Trouble

Spurs get hot behind Bowen, putting three-time champions in a very hot seat

May 08, 2003|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

SAN ANTONIO — Three championships in, on a Wednesday night thick with the scent of change, Kobe Bryant draped a sinewy arm across Shaquille O'Neal's bull neck, in the final moments of a loss nearly as damaging in its consequences as in its breadth.

The night concluded with the Lakers' last five on the floor, next to the San Antonio Spurs' last five. Sweat dried on O'Neal's shoulders, dripped on Bryant's face, his jaw set against the reality of, for them, a terrible, ugly game, and against the task before them all.

The Spurs beat the Lakers, 114-95, at SBC Center, and so have won the first two games of the Western Conference semifinals, the Lakers nowhere near their best in either of them, the Spurs more aggressive, more polished.

"What I said to [O'Neal]," Bryant said, "there's a lot of reasons for us not to win this series. So, that being said, let's go win it. That was the gist of the message. We're down, 0-2. We have two of our key members out. Here's an opportunity for us to make history. We shouldn't view it as any different. We should view this as an opportunity to do something great."

Beginning last Oct. 29, the night they all received their third NBA championship ring in three years, the Lakers have lost six consecutive games to the Spurs. They have never won in the new arena on the outskirts of town, because the Spurs keep playing like this, because this time Bruce Bowen made seven of eight three-pointers and scored 27 points, and because the suddenly thin Lakers don't look so collected.

Game 3 is Friday and in Los Angeles, so there's that.

"It's simple," Bryant said. "The pressure shifts to us to defend home court.... It's a tough one, but we're going to be ready."

They have so much to do before then. The Spurs, after playing poorly and winning Game 1 anyway, shot 56% from the floor in Game 2, held Bryant to nine field goals in 24 attempts, and generally contained O'Neal, who has waded through foul trouble in both games.

Their previous championships have come from the darkest of places; the fourth quarter against Portland and Game 7 in Sacramento, the Cold War days of O'Neal and Bryant, regular seasons that sagged under the weight of unfamiliar systems and old ideas.

Now, the Lakers have a new hole, just as dark, after looking overmatched in south-central Texas. They started Brian Shaw at shooting guard and pushed Bryant to small forward, and still the Spurs did not budge. Indeed, they pushed harder.

The Lakers have not been in such a hole since they lost the first two games of the conference semifinals four years ago to the Spurs, a series in which they were swept in four games. They have not come back to win such a series since 1969, when they lost two to the San Francisco Warriors and won the next four.

Now, a run of championships that began with that sweep by the Spurs, the ensuing summer's hiring of Phil Jackson, the gradual infusion of the triangle offense and three consecutive ring ceremonies, is threatening to end with the Spurs too. The Spurs are unshaken, taking points where they lie, from Tim Duncan (12) to Bowen to Manu Ginobili (17), and running the Lakers, who in desperation -- or something -- have come out of their offense and out of their playoff cool.

Bryant, who had three of his shots blocked by Bowen, spent most of the game glaring at the referees, and scored 27 points. The man for whom he had at least partial responsibility, Bowen, set a franchise playoff record for three-pointers in a half (three) and in a game. It also was a playoff record for a Laker opponent.

The Lakers, who built three championships on spring defense and mental grit, felt put upon by the referees again, though this time they shot most of the free throws. O'Neal, who scored 27 points, has committed 10 fouls in the series, five on the offensive side, a trend that has taken some of his ferocity.

"We need to keep Shaq out of foul trouble on the offensive end, so he can play defense," Jackson said. "We have to limit their chances and opportunities around the lane and the basket..... He's going to have to [govern] himself on what's acceptable and what they're calling. ...

"The same with Kobe. Kobe is feeling he's getting fouled by Bowen and therefore he's going at it doubly hard, as a result calls are not being made and he's taking tough shots and he's making difficult situations out there for himself."

O'Neal, stubborn in his game, seems unlikely to alter it. He said after he fouled out Monday that he'd maintain his aggressiveness, and said it again Wednesday, after the fouls and the blowout limited him to 31 minutes.

"I'm going to continue to play my game," he said. "If they want to continue to protect the floppers, that's just what they have to do. But I'll never, ever change my game. Ever. If that's how they call it, that's how they call it."

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