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Showing 1-2 Punch

Lakers cut Spurs' advantage in half as Bryant scores 39 and George returns

May 10, 2003|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

The Lakers reclaimed a little of themselves on Friday night, and pulled themselves back into the Western Conference semifinals with a game and an attitude befitting that of an NBA champion, three times running.

Phil Jackson, searching for the player or the moment that might turn their postseason around, pulled Devean George out of the air, put him in the starting lineup, and the Lakers had the start they'd had in neither game in San Antonio.

They defeated the San Antonio Spurs, 110-95, at Staples Center, before a sellout crowd that hung on every possession, and so they cut the Spurs' lead to two games to one in the series, and ended a six-month, six-game losing streak against the Spurs.

Game 4 is Sunday afternoon at Staples.

Kobe Bryant forced his offense to the rim, shot 19 free throws, and scored 39 points, and it was the Spurs who had to play around their foul trouble. Still surrounded on the inside, Shaquille O'Neal took only 16 shots, but scored 21 points, and had 16 rebounds and eight assists, approaching a triple-double for the second time in the postseason.

With their perimeter shooters failing -- Bruce Bowen, Stephen Jackson and Tony Parker were a combined five for 27 from the field -- the Spurs went to a single-covered Tim Duncan, who scored 28 points, and Malik Rose, who had 15. The Spurs trailed by as many as 17 points in the first quarter, however, and while they occasionally drew close enough to make a courtside star or two cranky, the Laker victory was as methodical as it was complete.

"We hear a lot of people talk," Bryant said, "saying the Lakers are over."

He smirked. It has been the theme all season, the Lakers playing themselves into trouble, squaring their shoulders, playing themselves out of it, through the mess, usually riding O'Neal or Bryant, or both. On Friday, the five Laker starters scored at least 13 points.

"It was a return of a lot of activity and energy on our part," Jackson said. "I don't know how well we played yet. I haven't figured that out."

The shock was George, injured four days before, on crutches two days before, and with "no hope," Jackson's estimation, one day before. He started, opened the offense with the jump shots that would not fall for his teammates in Games 1 and 2, and they all appeared swept away in it.

He had stepped into the coaches' locker room 25 minutes before game time and said he'd play, and then must have had one of the great layup lines in history, because Jackson started him.

"I am not going to be doing any dunking or a lot of rebounding, but as far as me moving my feet it's really not a problem," George said. "I had to block it out and play through it."

The crowd cheered his return, and he scored 13 points, nine in the first quarter .

"Willis Reed-like?" Bryant said, grinning. "Devean came in and played extremely well, with a lot of heart. Hopefully, this can be a turning point in his career."

In the San Antonio losses, Bryant had averaged 32 points and O'Neal 25.5. But, the Lakers had struggled from there. In those games, their No. 3 scorer was rookie Jannero Pargo. Fourth was rookie Kareem Rush.

They hadn't cleared Derek Fisher for open shots and Robert Horry had missed his. Rick Fox was lost in the first round and then George fell, and the Lakers lacked the end-to-end athletic ability to stay with the fleet Spurs.

Their fourth consecutive title in the balance -- no NBA team has come back from a 3-0 deficit -- Horry had 13 points and 12 rebounds and played Duncan head up. Fisher, who has stayed hot despite too few attempts, scored 14 points.

"They were good and we got knocked on our heels," Duncan said.

With 4:47 left before the half, Jack Nicholson was standing in front of his courtside seat, screaming, gesturing angrily at referee Mark Wunderlich, and the crowd was urging him on. Wunderlich flushed some, angled his gaze away from the actor, and eventually Nicholson sat down.

The last time Nicholson was this angry, he had a nine-iron in his hand. Referee Ron Garretson told a security guard that Nicholson would be ejected if he would not control himself, players edged closer so they could hear the tirade, and hid smiles.

"I just saw 'Anger Management,' " Bryant said. "I thought I was watching it again."

Meantime, the Lakers maintained a defensive edge for a half, the first, when the Spurs scored 36 points. Manu Ginobili, whose quickness had forced Jackson to consider lineup and rotation changes, was barely a factor. He scored eight points in 21 minutes, and Bryant went after Bowen on both ends of the floor, bringing a mixed review from Jackson.

Asked about Bryant's game, Jackson said, "Good. Bad. Good. Bad. Good. Bad. Good. Bad. Great. He had great energy, a terrific amount of energy. He threw himself into the game. I think he wanted to send a message to Bowen, that it was going to be his night."

Bowen had scored 27 points in Game 2, when he made seven of eight three-pointers and rode Bryant defensively. Bowen scored three points in Game 3, missing six of seven shots.

"What'd you think?" Bryant said. "He was going to come out and score 30 again?"

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