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Spurs know no fear, and that's scary

May 21, 2008|Bill Plaschke

By now, you've surely read about our happy Lakers family enjoying dinner together while watching the seventh game of the other Western Conference semifinal Monday night.

What you didn't read was any mention of cheering.

That's because, I'm guessing, there wasn't any.

The wrong team won, and they know it.

The bad guys are here, and they hate it.

In the San Antonio Spurs, the Lakers are playing the only Western Conference team they privately feel is capable of beating them in a seven-game series.

This doesn't mean the Spurs will necessarily win the Western Conference finals beginning tonight at Staples Center.

But they can.

As eerie as a Tim Duncan stare, they have been hovering out there all spring as the Lakers' ultimate measuring stick.

As pesky as a Manu Ginobili flop, they have been the challenge the Lakers figured they eventually would have to face, but quietly hoped they wouldn't.

Lamar Odom shook his head.

"To beat them, you have to play perfect basketball," he said.

Kobe Bryant shook his head.

"You've got to beat them . . . they're so seasoned, they're not going to beat themselves," he said.

Derek Fisher shook his head.

For longer than four-tenths of a second.

"These guys have established themselves as the consistent power in our league," he said. "It's going to be a challenge for us."

This talk would all be just gamesmanship, except the Lakers have been saying it for a couple of months, ever since they realized they would probably make the playoffs and be in this position.

Anybody but San Antonio.

Any coach but Pop.

Any point but Parker.

Any bench but one containing Big Shot Bob.

Only the Spurs, it seems, are completely unafraid to play under the lights of Hollywood.

Heck, Tony Parker married the lights of Hollywood.

In the 1999 conference semifinals, the Spurs completed a sweep of the Lakers at the Forum.

In the 2003 conference semifinals, the Spurs finished off the Lakers at Staples Center.

Plus, these Spurs have already won a Game 7 on the road against New Orleans, and a brilliant Game 3 on the road against Phoenix.

When Bryant was asked if he felt sorry for the Spurs after they were forced to sleep on their broken-down plane Monday night, his short answer spoke of his deep respect.

"No."

Only the Spurs, too, are completely unafraid to play Bryant.

He'll score his points against them, but they will be tough points, painful points. The Spurs will shove him, scheme him, tie him up in Bowens.

And if all else fails, old friend Robert Horry will simply hip-check him into the press table.

"We have had our battles, we've had some good classic confrontations," Bryant said.

Finally, most importantly, only the Spurs are completely unafraid of the last five minutes.

No team in basketball is better during that time, the veteran teammates knowing exactly where they are supposed to be, doing exactly what they are supposed to do.

"When they got up about nine points against the Hornets in that Game 7, I knew the Spurs would not let it up, even when it got close," Odom said. "When it counts, they know exactly what they are doing. They are a machine."

In games decided by fewer than 10 points in this postseason, the Spurs are 4-0, while the Lakers are 3-2, giving the Lakers one of several mandates.

Don't let the Spurs stay close. Don't let their guards get good looks. Don't let Duncan feel young. Don't let Horry anywhere near the three-point line with the game on the line.

While all the talk this postseason has been about the "Big Three" in Boston or L.A., Bryant noted that the Spurs have a different sort of big three.

"Tempo, tenacity, execution," he said.

The only unknown here, as usual this spring, is Pau Gasol.

He played once for the Lakers against the Spurs, and scored 14 points with 11 rebounds, but that was late in the season when the Spurs were short-handed and not paying much attention.

Bryant already knows how Gasol will change things.

"In the past, when we've played them, I'd have the ball on the wing and they'd just be standing on the block," Bryant said, noting that Duncan would camp inside to keep him from driving. "Now we have somebody down there who can catch and deliver."

But, in the next breath, Bryant sighed.

"But they're so good, I'm sure they'll make the adjustments," he said.

OK, so, facing the defending NBA champs and the only team that has won more titles in the last nine years, it's going to take the Lakers a while to find their swagger.

"This is the matchup everyone wanted to see," Odom said, shrugging.

Well, not everyone.

--

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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