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Bill Plaschke / NBA PLAYOFFS * SAN ANTONIO 114, LAKERS
95

They're Still Champions, but Reign Is Near Collapse

May 08, 2003|Bill Plaschke

SAN ANTONIO — It is not over. We should probably say it again, huh? It is not over.

There are at least two more games. There are at least five more hours.

There is still time for Kobe Bryant at the buzzer, Shaquille O'Neal in a zone, Robert Horry from the clouds.

There are about 19,000 screams to embrace them on Friday. There are the three rings to fuel them through Sunday.

The Laker dynasty has earned the right to be condemned only when the bricks are scattered and the dust is rising.

But make no mistake.

Today, that dynasty teeters.

Today, its foundation is cracked, its floors are buckling and its options are shrinking.

Today, its tenants are wading through the broken glass of a defeat that resounded with a force that felt like a finality.

It was a second consecutive blow, deep, stunning, a 114-95 loss to the San Antonio Spurs Wednesday in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals.

It was a blow that opened a two-games-to-none hole that is so unfamiliar to the Lakers, they couldn't even properly enunciate it.

"We're down two-oh," said Brian Shaw, pausing. "I mean, oh-two."

It was a blow the Lakers saw coming, yet could do nothing to stop.

"We're frustrated, we're upset," Mark Madsen said.

It was a 19-point beating that felt like 50, an embarrassment of Samakian proportions, a mismatch that feels like it could go on forever.

"We're in dangerous territory," O'Neal acknowledged.

Which is sort of like being tossed outside in this south Texas humidity and acknowledging that it's getting warm.

This dynasty has never been down, 2-0, in the playoffs.

This dynasty has never had to win four out of five against a team with the best record in the league.

And has any Laker team had to win that many against an opponent who has beaten them all six times during the season?

"They did what they were supposed to do, they held home-court advantage," Horry said, somehow still able to shrug. "Now it's up to us to do what we're supposed to do."

Staples Center is good, but is it that good?

And what exactly are these Lakers supposed to do?

With Rick Fox gone, they are missing the sort of tough defense that might have slowed the paint-splattering sprints of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and a bunch of other little guys in baggy shirts.

With Devean George gone, they are missing the sort of offensive weapon that might have slowed the hands in Bryant's face and the climbing on O'Neal's back.

Despite the words, "10 assists" written angrily on the locker room greaseboard -- the lowest in Laker playoff history -- this loss wasn't as much about energy as mortality.

If the dynasty falls, it will be for reasons no more complicated than it just wasn't strong enough to stand anymore.

"Other guys in the locker room need to stand up and make contributions to this team," said O'Neal.

Fine. Who?

In the previous three seasons, that made sense when those somebodies were a younger Horry, a fresher Shaw, a pre-foot-surgery Derek Fisher, a Horace Grant, a Glen Rice, a Ron Harper.

Today, these somebodies are rookies with little clue or veterans with little chance.

The memorable moments for the Spurs on Wednesday, in a game in which they led by as many as 33 points, include muscling blocked shots and diving steals and SBC Center fans so enthralled their cheers rained spit on courtside observers.

The memorable moments for the Lakers included Kareem Rush wandering around lost on offense, and Rush and Slava Medvedenko arguing about a blown defense that allowed an uncontested dunk by Stephen Jackson.

The season-long argument for the Lakers' winning a fourth consecutive championship despite a shaky supporting cast was always that it didn't matter because they had the two best players in basketball.

Well, this week here has proven that even the two best players in basketball will lose a game of two-on-eight.

Even the two best players cannot guard two men at a time.

Even the two best players cannot invent somebody to pass it to them.

"We're not embarrassed, this is going to happen," said Horry. "We're down two strong men, it's going to happen."

The scary thing for Laker fans is in wondering what will stop it from happening again.

Some will say that there is no way Bruce Bowen will make seven of eight three-point shots in Los Angeles.

The counter is that Tim Duncan probably will score more than 12 points in Los Angeles.

Some will say that there is no way the Spurs will shoot 56% in Los Angeles.

The counter is that, well, none of their starters played more than 32 of 48 minutes, and what happens when they do?

"We're not in trouble," Horry said, pausing. "Yet."

Yet?

*

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

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