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Bill Plaschke

Ending Hints That the Magic Is Gone

May 14, 2003|Bill Plaschke

SAN ANTONIO — It was in. It was in. It was in.

It was out?

It was a swish, it was a stunner, it was a comeback, it was a championship.

It was out?

Robert Horry was the Laker hero again Tuesday, sinking another buzzer-beating three-pointer to cap another unfathomable comeback.

He was not?

The truth goes down hard today, as hard as Horry's final shot rattled the rim, as hard as the Laker magic hit the floor.

The reality is unreal today, as unreal as a 25-point comeback that fell two points short, as unreal as the idea that a three-year dynasty could now be two days from extinction.

It wasn't just that the San Antonio Spurs held their breath to defeat the charging Lakers, 96-94, to take a three-games-to-two lead in the Western Conference semifinals.

It was that the Lakers lost a game they always win. Their hero missed a shot he used to make. Their center was on the bench during a time he used to dominate. Their injured forward was limping where he once inspired.

Two days after another one of those immortal fourth quarters, they are faced again with their own mortality.

If the greatest game-winning, three-point shooter in the modern era can miss a game-winning three-point shot, is nothing sacred?

"A loss is a loss," said Kobe Bryant, somehow still able to shrug after shouldering his team through a fourth-quarter comeback.

The bravado sounded flat when set against the stomping cheers of relief from the 18,797 at the SBC Center.

The shrug looked forced when set against the joyous fist pumps of a Spurs' team that walked through the valley of the Laker mystique and survived.

"The Lakers play so well at the end of quarters, it gets in your head a little bit," said Spur Coach Gregg Popovich, whose team faltered under similar pressure Sunday in Los Angeles.

And now?

"We're thrilled, are you kidding me?" he said.

One might think the Lakers would also be at least a teeny-bit happy, seeing as they used a makeshift lineup to come back from a 25-point deficit with 2:45 left in the third quarter.

But, as always on a team that expects to win even these crazy games, it's not that easy.

The comeback was tainted by the fact that Shaquille O'Neal was on the bench for the first 5:39 of the fourth quarter. With just one foul. Which means something else was foul.

"We could not have come back in this game if Shaq was on the floor," Coach Phil Jackson said sternly. "We needed an active defense, and Shaq was not very active tonight. There were times he wasn't getting back on defense.

"He played in moments. It looked like he did not give a consistent effort."

Jackson is the only man big enough to call out O'Neal, who indeed looked sluggish with only six rebounds and five turnovers after three quarters.

"I'm all right," O'Neal said when told about the charges.

Is something physically wrong with him?

"Who cares?" he said. "I don't care."

In Shaq-speak, that usually means something is wrong with him, and Bryant later confirmed this by saying, "I know he's been having problems with his left knee."

That's not good. Neither is Devean George's sprained left ankle, which he had been favoring after playing 40 minutes Sunday.

He missed all seven shots Tuesday night, scoring only two points with one rebound.

"This is the time in the NBA when you play through these things, normally, we would sit him," Jackson said before the game.

Well, it appears they may have to sit him for some of Thursday's potentially decisive Game 6, which isn't good because of the problems of their other forward.

For those keeping score at home, Horry wishes you would break your pencil.

His final missed three-pointer made him 0 for 6 from that distance on Tuesday, 0 for 15 against the Spurs, and two for 35 for the playoffs.

Which leads to this question:

Why on earth would Bryant pass him the ball for that last shot?

Said Jackson: "It was a good decision by Kobe. Rob was the guy who was open.

"You'd expect the odds to be with him."

Said Bryant: "If he has that opportunity in the next game, I'll give it to him again."

But with perhaps only 48 minutes left in the season, perhaps it is finally time for the Lakers to abandon loyalty, forget about last year's Game 4 against Sacramento, forget about the two other postseason games that were won or clinched with Horry's three-pointers, and find somebody else.

Even somebody named Slava Medvedenko.

"I thought seriously about that," Jackson said.

It was Medvedenko who appeared from the bench to fuel the comeback with 11 second-half points.

It was Horry who allowed David Robinson to slip behind him for an alley-oop dunk down the stretch.

"You're not going to roll over me and my teammates. I'm not going to let that happen," Bryant said late Tuesday.

Come Thursday, he will need some more help.


Bill Plaschke can be reached at

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