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ON THE NBA

Spurs' Middle Man Key to Turnaround

May 16, 2003|Mark Heisler

As one dynast said to the other dynast, that was fun while it lasted.

For three seasons, the Lakers ruled the NBA, long enough for a great power, like the Spurs, to fall and rise again.

The Spurs were the last team to win a title before the Laker run began in 2000 and Thursday night, after three furious seasons of rebuilding, not to mention a humiliation or two, the Spurs had the honor of toppling the Lakers, returning the humiliation in the process in a farewell 110-82 pounding.

Only two years ago, the Lakers capped a 4-0 sweep of the Spurs with 111-72 and 111-82 poundings in Games 3 and 4, showing what goes around really does come around, at least in this rivalry.

"We had a tough couple years with these guys," Coach Gregg Popovich said, "and to finally play well enough to beat such a great team -- I mean, it's a great group of guys individually, a great group as a team. You know, what they've accomplished is beyond my comprehension."

What the Lakers have accomplished is also in the past, a testimonial to how fast Popovich could rebuild a team around Tim Duncan and David Robinson.

Only Duncan, the two-time reigning MVP, the retiring Admiral, Malik Rose and Steve Kerr remain from the team the Lakers swept in 2001, and Kerr has gone and come back.

Of course, as the Lakers could tell you after watching Duncan lay the ball over their so-called power forwards to the tune of 37 points Thursday, that's a nice nucleus, all by himself.

Duncan faded at the end of Game 5 when Shaquille O'Neal shut him down, giving the Lakers a last chance to win after it appeared that the Spurs were the only real obstacle left between them and title No. 4.

Nobody stops Duncan forever, as O'Neal found out Thursday when he got to try it again and was treated as if he were any other Laker.

"Obviously, he's a quick learner," Popovich said of Duncan. "He was astounding tonight."

Duncan was astounding all series, averaging 28 points, 10.6 rebounds, 4.8 assists and shooting 53%. In the first round the Suns swarmed him, turning Duncan into a passer to the tune of 6.8 assists a game.

"I came into this series and [the Lakers] had decided to let me do what I had to do," Duncan said. "My shot didn't feel great early on. I got my hook working. My jump shot really isn't there yet. But we won the series, we made some shots. It was great."

Laker Coach Phil Jackson said the Spurs "left no doubt they were the better team in this series," a major concession for a man who's rarely inclined, or obliged, to make them.

It was true. Only Laker comebacks that pulled out Game 4 after they trailed by 16 and almost saved Game 5 after they were down 25 kept it from being one-sided.

Of course, auras die hard, especially this one. When the Spurs swooned in Game 5, the prevailing thought was that the Lakers would roll over them in Game 6, go back to San Antonio for their usual heroics and the parade would follow here in a month.

"This will sound really crazy," Popovich said before the game, "but what happened in the last game was the best medicine we would get.... We obviously won it by the skin of our teeth, by not sticking with the way we do things. I think it put the fear of God in [my players], so I think they're coming in here with some appropriate fear that perhaps we didn't have for Game 3."

Give that man a coach-of-the-year award.

Oh, he already has it?

Before the season, the Spurs were thought to be rebuilding. Boy, that was fast, wasn't it?

"At the beginning of the year, we didn't know what Stephen Jackson was going to be," Popovich said. "We didn't know if he was going to make the team, if he was going to play a lot for us....

"We didn't know if we were right about [Manu Ginobili]. He had to prove himself. Tony Parker was in his sophomore year and oftentimes that's not good for a guy. They surprise people at first but sometimes after that it doesn't work out. It's David's last year, we didn't know how healthy he'd be....

"As the season went on, we expected more and more from them so there is no surprise now that we're playing the way we're playing. But if you take it back to the first day of training camp and say this is going to happen, I would have said, 'Well, you know, you're getting a bit ahead of yourself.... A lot, maybe.' "

Camp is over. So, for the moment, are the Lakers.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Spur of the Moment

San Antonio's Tim Duncan improved his per-game statistics in some categories in the Western Conference semifinals against the Lakers from those he compiled in his MVP regular season. A look at those per-game statistics, and similar categories in playoff series against the Lakers in 2001 and 2002:

(text of infobox not included)

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