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MARK HEISLER ON THE NBA

Lakers Not High on '90s Flashback

May 09, 2003|MARK HEISLER

We're all about making history.

-- Shaquille O'Neal

One way or the other, they are, for sure.

For Laker fans looking for a shred of hope, there's an NBA proverb that says a playoff series doesn't start until the first team wins on the road.

And the Lakers are still the Lakers. Well, some of them, anyway.

Aside from that, you're on your own.

A 2-0 lead, achieved on one's home court, hardly ends a seven-game series, but you can't say this one has started the way the Lakers expected.

They were serenely confident they'd win the opener, as they had in the three other series they'd started on the road under Phil Jackson, at San Antonio in 2001, Sacramento in '02 and Minnesota this spring

Of course, after losing, they were really sure they'd win Game 2. They were so confident, they weren't even short with the press on the day off ... after which the Spurs bombed them back to the Stone Age, or the '90s when teams (like the Spurs) were doing this to the Lakers every spring.

That's part of history too.

It's not that the Lakers can't play better, but there aren't many of them left. Meanwhile, the Spurs have demonstrated that 60-50 difference in victories between them and the Lakers this season wasn't a total fluke and they're pretty good too.

Not that this should be a surprise here, where "The Dynasty Teeters" is not a new story, but this may finally be the season they can't put Humpty Dumpty back together in time so ...

If they're going out, at least let them go out like champions.

All that's left now is to play as well as they can and accept what happens. As everyone knows, the problems didn't start two weeks ago when Rick Fox was hurt but last summer when O'Neal deferred his surgery and management deferred restocking the roster.

Working the referees is a coach's inalienable right, but past a certain point, like after acknowledging one's team just got "a royal kick in the butt," it's beneath them.

O'Neal must, indeed, change his game, but regardless of how many times he says, "never ever," he has been through this before.

The Sacramento Kings, who flop more in five minutes than the Spurs do in a season, went after him last spring, trying to draw charges, running every second play at him, keeping him in constant foul trouble ... before he cleaned his game up dramatically in the last three, which was how the Lakers won.

(Flopping, like whining, is in the eye of the beholder. O'Neal says he never flops, but on at least two occasions in San Antonio, he fell backward to the floor after contact, trying to get a call. Of course, he went 0 for 2.)

Besides image considerations, the Lakers have enough to worry about without bleating about officials.

How about scoring 82 and 95, even with a 28-point garbage-time fourth quarter in Game 2?

O'Neal and Kobe Bryant remain the game's mightiest tandem, but the Spurs learned about Derek Fisher the hard way two years ago, when he shot 75% on three-pointers. Now they stay home with him, even if that loosens things up for Shaq.

With Robert Horry yet to make two shots in a game in this series, there aren't a lot of other problems to concern the Spurs' defenders.

Meanwhile, the Spurs penetrate at will, slashing the Laker defense to ribbons. The Lakers have to deal not only with Tim Duncan, but Tony Parker breaking them down ... Bruce Bowen making threes ... Manu Ginobili dropping threes, getting into the middle ... David Robinson making himself a threat ... Malik Rose hustling ... Speedy Claxton getting into the lane (do the Spurs hold team meetings under the Laker basket?) ... even Stephen Jackson, coming back from his Game 1 misadventure.

The Lakers' perceived advantage was Bryant versus the Spurs' No. 2 scorer, whoever that was. Parker and Jackson went a combined three for 16 in Game 1 but the Spurs won by holding the Lakers to 82 and there went the best chance to make the youth of San Antonio gag.

The Laker disadvantage, as always, is depth, which would have been bad enough if they were at full strength. Down two players, it's, uh, really bad.

Jackson played his reserves with Bryant the whole fourth quarter of Game 2, padding their stats ... so the bench was outscored only 45-28, making it 73-32 in the series.

Did someone think this run was going to last forever? The way the Lakers approached it, it was a miracle they won two in a row, much less three.

If it ends in this round or the next, they know there's every chance they'll be back next season with another player or two, like Scottie Pippen and Juwan Howard or P.J. Brown, not to mention a new hunger and humility (well, maybe a little).

In the meantime, if this isn't to be, they can lose with as much grace as they won with. Actually, because they enjoyed themselves so much at everyone else's expense, more grace would be nice.

Anyone can handle winning. Character is what you are in the dark, since we're doing proverbs today. Who you are when you lose is who you are.

If they want to know how it's done, they need only to think back to 2001, when they finished sweeping the Spurs with 111-72 and 111-82 poundings. Coach Gregg Popovich and Robinson kept showing up in the press room and praising the Lakers, however glumly, before going on about their lives.

Now they're back. It just goes to show you.

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