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Doing Their Level Best

Lakers, their dynasty in jeopardy and their coach in recovery, erase a 16-point deficit and surge past Spurs at finish to even series, 2-2.

May 12, 2003|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

They keep taking pieces of the Lakers away, stripping off layers, and on Sunday afternoon Phil Jackson stayed home, and the Lakers won again anyway.

By now, the Lakers were going to be gone, off to a summer of putting themselves back together, or at least on the verge of it, because they had no depth and no defense and no small forward and, as of the weekend, no head coach.

Their desires for a fourth consecutive championship in the usual perilous places, the Lakers defeated the San Antonio Spurs, 99-95, at Staples Center, tied the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals at two games apiece and went another few days into May, if for no other reason than they were standing at the end.

Jackson was in Playa del Rey recovering from Saturday's angioplasty procedure, which meant it was assistant Jim Cleamons who stood in front of the bench as the Lakers fought off deficits of 16 points in the second quarter, 10 in the third and two in the final 90 seconds.

The Lakers scored the last six points, all at the free-throw line, all by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. And, with 14.2 seconds remaining and the Laker lead three points, Bryant stepped in front of Spur rookie Manu Ginobili to steal an inbounds pass from point guard Tony Parker, and a rapt crowd breathed again, and the Lakers let their shoulders fall a little, and the Spurs were done for the day.

"We feel like we did what we were supposed to do," Laker guard Brian Shaw said.

Bryant scored 35 points, 14 from the free-throw line. O'Neal scored 29 points -- he was 17 for 23 from the line, where the Lakers outscored the Spurs, 35-20 -- and took 17 rebounds. Tim Duncan, who missed a three-point attempt in the last 10 seconds, had 36 points, but didn't have a Kobe Bryant beside him, and so the Spurs, who won the first two games in San Antonio, lost twice in Los Angeles. Game 5 is Tuesday night in San Antonio. Game 6 is here Thursday night.

"We don't budge," Bryant said wearily. "We all know that. We don't go anywhere. You knock us down, we get right back up. Teams that are more talented, that should beat us, they don't beat us. Teams that are deeper, that get more shots, get more foul calls, doesn't matter to us. We're going to find a way to win. We just refuse to lose. Period."

Jackson had hinted at his heart ailment Friday, had his procedure Saturday, and Sunday contacted Cleamons several times by telephone. He called pregame, at halftime and afterward, to discuss the strategies of playing past the younger, more athletic Spurs. In between, the Lakers were on their own, through eight lead changes and seven ties in the fourth quarter alone, through a game fractured by 57 fouls and 71 free throws.

Robert Horry stayed cold, and David Robinson fouled out without a point, and Devean George limped more than he had Friday night, and for nearly 19 minutes the only Lakers to score were Bryant and O'Neal. But the Lakers pushed back, just as they had in coming back from the two-games-to-one deficit to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round, and they had a 16-3 run to close the third quarter, and it would be just enough. Again.

After two quarters or so, Cleamons said, "We came out and showed more of an effort, more like the team I have been familiar with the past three and a half years."

Derek Fisher scored 11 of his 17 points in the second half, when George scored all nine of his. There were the usual issues of defending Duncan, and the Spurs made half of their 18 three-point shots, but the Lakers made half of their 16 too.

"For some reason, losing didn't cross my mind," said Cleamons, who was 2-1 as Jackson's midseason replacement when Jackson had a kidney-stone procedure. "I mean, even as bad as that first quarter looked, my instincts told me somehow, some kind of way, we were going to win. If we could just weather that storm at the beginning, and somehow get our ship in order, we could win the game."

Jackson wasn't far, either. Laker players said they missed him, or parts of him, but praised Cleamons for his calm, and it was Cleamons who rode them back into a game that for stretches looked lost. The building lacked Jackson's two-pinkie whistle, but added Cleamons' shouts for defense.

A loss by the Lakers would have meant they'd need to win three consecutive games, two of them at SBC Center, where they've never won. So, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell in the gym, they dumped the ball to O'Neal, though maybe not enough again, and they handed the ball to Bryant, who crashed into the Spurs' interior defense again and again.

When it was absolutely necessary for the Lakers, Fisher would land on top of a loose ball, or Robinson would hack O'Neal, or Bryant would read Parker's inbounds pass, with everything on the line.

"I don't know if 'survive' is the right term," Bryant said. "We have encountered so many different challenges this year, we just look at it as another obstacle. We thrive in these types of situations. We would much rather have everyone healthy, obviously, but Phil has taught us how to play through adversity. We got to the point where we learn how."



Home Edge?

Is this why teams are concerned about earning home-court advantage? Free throws in Games 1-4:

*--* AT SAN ANTONIO SPURS LAKERS GAME 1 21-35 9-12 GAME 2 22-27 15-24 TOTAL 43-62 24-36 AT STAPLES SPURS LAKERS GAME 3 20-24 33-40 GAME 4 20-26 35-45 TOTAL 40-50 68-85


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