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Lakers Have Reasons to Worry About Spurs

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From asterisk to at-risk.

The San Antonio Spurs have a legitimate championship this time thanks to their 88-77 NBA Finals-clinching victory over the New Jersey Nets on Sunday night. Now the rest of the league is in danger of having to face the oppressive heat and drenching thunderstorms of Texas every June for years to come.

“Shaq better get in shape,” Charles Barkley said. “There is definitely a challenge to the throne.”

Laker Coach Phil Jackson first hung that asterisk on San Antonio’s 1999 championship because it came after a lockout-shortened, 50-game season in a league that was scrambling to find a replacement for the dismantled Chicago Bulls.

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But you don’t need a * next to their name to see how the Spurs stand out among the NBA champions since 1987. The Lakers (1987-88 and 2000-02), Detroit Pistons (1989-90), Chicago Bulls (1991-93 and 1996-98) and Houston Rockets (1994-95) all managed to defend their championship at least once. The Spurs’ repeat hopes fizzled when Tim Duncan was injured and sat out their first-round loss to Phoenix in the 2000 playoffs, and the Laker dynasty began.

The Spurs will begin the 2003-04 season as the team to beat -- potentially for years to come. They can get $15 million or more below the salary cap this summer, which will allow them to shop in the high end of the free-agent market, where names such as Jason Kidd, Jermaine O’Neal, P.J. Brown and Juwan Howard can be found.

This means they can become the first NBA champions to get significantly better in the off-season since the Lakers drafted James Worthy in 1982.

Most of their key players are under 30. Tim Duncan, the most valuable player of the regular season and the NBA Finals, is 27. Tony Parker is 21, Stephen Jackson is 25 and Manu Ginobili will be 26 in July.

“We’ve got a great coach [Gregg Popovich],” General Manager R.C. Buford said. “We’ve got a player [Tim Duncan] that I’d rather have than anybody in the league. And as long as I don’t screw it up, we’ve got a chance.”

The track record suggests he won’t. He drafted Parker and Ginobili, while giving the Spurs cap flexibility. Their biggest challenge might come from within. It won’t be easy to duplicate this chemistry.

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They won their first championship because Robinson -- two years after being named one of the NBA’s 50 greatest all-time players -- stepped aside to let Duncan run the team. And they won this one because veterans such as Steve Kerr, Kevin Willis and Steve Smith sat down on the end of the bench without complaining, but were professional enough to be ready to contribute when asked.

Robinson is retiring, Kerr might join him and the Spurs will let Smith go to free cap room. Will their replacements fit in as well?

For all of the guys who stay, expect them to be automatically better next season.

Watch tapes of Michael Jordan before and after his first title and you’ll notice he became even more ruthless after his first taste of champagne.

And remember the first step of the Laker three-peat? They were 2-6 in their opportunities to close a series early. They went 7-0 in early close-out games the next two years.

The Spurs have these memories to draw on now. The erratic Stephen Jackson played so erratic at the start that Popovich called on Ginobili to replace him 90 seconds into Game 6. But in the fourth quarter he made three of four three-pointers during the sprint to the title. The first one gave the Spurs the lead with 6:34. The second all but iced the game, putting the Spurs ahead by eight with 4:49 left.

And how about Ginobili’s data bank? It now includes a fourth-quarter steal from a careless Richard Jefferson, which led to a fastbreak dunk that Kidd called the turning point of the game, plus making all four free throws in the final quarter.

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“I think it will do an incredible amount for the younger guys,” Duncan said. “Especially guys like Stephen Jackson, Bruce Bowen. It’s gonna help a lot of guys. This experience -- to make it this far, to be the last team standing, to go through all the trials and tribulations we have all season long, the ups-and-downs -- it was so much to learn from this season.”

They’ve been known for fourth-quarter collapses in recent years.

But in the fourth quarters of Game 6 in the last three series this year, the Spurs outscored the Nets, Mavericks and Lakers by a combined score of 97-36.

Sunday night they used a 19-0 run and flushed the Nets, 31-14, to erase a 10-point lead in the fourth.

Duncan came this close to posting a quadruple-double. He finished with 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists and eight blocked shots. When the Nets went dormant in the fourth quarter, Duncan either grabbed a rebound or got a hand in the shooter’s face for almost every missed shot.

“There’s definitely somebody banging on Superman’s door,” Barkley said.

Barkley won’t give up on Shaquille O’Neal and the Lakers yet, not after what they accomplished the previous three years.

“The Lakers are the only team that can beat them,” Barkley said.

But it’s time to learn from San Antonio.

“If you look at their stats, Kobe’s the one that’s been killing [the Spurs in the past]. They went out and got Bowen and Ginobili and Jackson.”

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They went at Kobe Bryant, and now it’s the Lakers’ turn to adjust

After three years on top, the Lakers are running uphill ... which might actually be a good training regimen for O’Neal.

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J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com.

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