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Spurs never too late for Lakers

San Antonio has trouble getting from New Orleans to Los Angeles. Rivalry is full of respect, but there's little love lost.

May 21, 2008|Mike Bresnahan | Times Staff Writer

San Antonio has won four championships since 1999, the Lakers have won three, and the winner of the Western Conference finals has a chance to gain something else.

"If we win it and you want to call us team of the decade, you're my man," Kobe Bryant said.

The Lakers and Spurs begin another playoff series tonight at Staples Center, their sixth meeting in the last 10 seasons, part of a rivalry in which familiarity breeds mild contempt and, often, an NBA title.

The players have mutual respect for one another -- "They're all nice guys. They're not trash talkers by any means," Bryant said -- but the coaches have taken turns slinging the zing.

Lakers Coach Phil Jackson was generally credited with starting it several years back when he dismissed San Antonio as a land of conventioneers and tourists, but Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich appeared to grab the last laugh by comparing the breakup of the Lakers in 2004 to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Jackson, never one to shy away from zinging the opponents (or his own players), once referred to Spurs forward Bruce Bowen as "Edward Scissorhands" because of his rough defense. Earlier this season, Jackson said Manu Ginobili traveled every time he drove to the basket, a so-called "European walk."

Not to be forgotten, Popovich had a problem with the Lakers' acquisition of Pau Gasol in February.

"What they did in Memphis is beyond comprehension," he told reporters shortly after Gasol arrived from the Grizzlies. "I just wish I had been on a trade committee that oversees NBA trades. I'd like to elect myself to that committee. I would have voted no to the L.A. trade."

Fast forward to Tuesday, and the Spurs were already a step behind the Lakers.

The Spurs planned to fly Monday night from New Orleans to Los Angeles after eliminating the Hornets, 91-82, but they ended up spending the night on the team plane as it sat near the airport tarmac in New Orleans because of mechanical problems.

The Spurs were more or less stuck because they could not find hotel rooms in New Orleans because of local conventions. The Spurs did not practice Tuesday and held media interviews in a ballroom at a swank Santa Monica hotel.

"We got to the plane at about midnight or something like that. Mechanical problem and no mechanic. Then no plane. Then no hotel," Popovich said. "Called about 15 or 20 places and couldn't go anywhere so we spent the evening in the tarmac on the plane. . . . It reminded me of Division III basketball."

The Lakers weren't exactly sending energy bars and mocha lattes when the Spurs landed at about 6:30 a.m. in L.A.

"This is not a time for sympathy," Gasol said. "No sympathy, no mercies. Time to compete."

Gasol, who is now 8-2 in the playoffs after being 0-12 in six seasons with Memphis, will draw Tim Duncan as his assignment. Derek Fisher will try to stop Tony Parker. And Bryant and Bowen will continue the decade-long rivalry within a rivalry.

After running up and down with Denver, and standing up to Utah's physicality, the Lakers now get the stinginess of the Spurs.

"They're one of the best defensive teams our league has seen in a long time," Fisher said.

The Lakers almost drew New Orleans instead of the Spurs, but, then again, where would the rivalry be in that?

"We wouldn't want it any other way," Bryant said. "To be the best, you've got to play against the best. They are the best and have been for quite some time. It's a great opportunity for us to see where we stack up."

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This is the type of series where Andrew Bynum might be missed.

"He's a great player and a presence inside that would help anybody and especially would help us, right?" Gasol said. "He's a great shot blocker, would intimidate a lot. A big body."

Bynum, who has been out since Jan. 13, is scheduled to undergo arthroscopic surgery today in New York to clean up rough spots on the underside of his left kneecap.

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Jackson was sardonic and humorous Tuesday after a slew of serious news conferences throughout the last week.

He threw out a punch line when asked where he would rank the rivalry with the Spurs.

"You mean after the Clippers?" he said dryly.

He was later asked if Bryant also bought him a $9,800 watch in addition to Lakers teammates.

"No," Jackson said. "I have plenty of watches."

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Times staff writer Jonathan Abrams contributed to this report.

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