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Losses Becoming Risky Business

Quickness, they’ve got it.

Springy legs, enthusiasm from start to finish, the San Antonio Spurs have that.

Shooters, rebounders, defenders? Got it, got it, got it.

And they’ve had those things for the last three years, as the Lakers took over from San Antonio as champions of the NBA. The Spurs had those things as the Lakers bullied them right out of the playoffs two years in a row.

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Toughness? The Spurs didn’t seem to have that. Strong will? Not enough. Sharp elbows, big mouths, chest-puffing confidence? Missing, missing and missing.

Until now.

The Spurs finished a season sweep of the Lakers on Sunday, winning, 98-89, in their new SBC Center, a place that rang with raucous cheering accompanied by those ubiquitous noise-making sticks made popular by Angel fans during the World Series. It was the sort of atmosphere that will only become more fierce during the playoffs, especially if it is these same Lakers who come to town in the first round.

What was impressive about the Spurs on Sunday was what they didn’t do.

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They didn’t make too big a deal out of this single win. Or even of the season sweep of the Lakers. They didn’t brag. They didn’t insult the Lakers. They didn’t overly praise themselves.

“We just worked hard,” Tim Duncan said. “We came out aggressive and really stuck with it. But you have to give the Lakers credit because they really challenged us tonight.”

Thanks, Tim, for the even-handedness. But really, the Lakers didn’t challenge that much.

They were given two gifts at the end of the second quarter. Kobe Bryant was not punished for elbowing Bruce Bowen to the floor, then was rewarded with two free throws after a phantom foul by Kevin Willis. There was 0.3 seconds left when Bryant made the two foul shots. And then the Spurs executed what looked like a perfect catch-and-shoot when Stephen Jackson heaved a no-look desperation ball that went in. By all the various looks and sounds -- the clock, the light at the top of the basket, the horn -- it seemed the basket was good. And the NBA rule book does say a catch-and-shoot can happen in 0.3 seconds. But the basket was waved off.

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So the Lakers trailed only 39-36 when it could have been 42-36 or even 42-34.

Instead of being energized, the Lakers came out logy, sluggish, slow. The Spurs galloped out for the third quarter with a swagger and a confidence that comes to a team when they understand what they’ve seen, when they understand that they have more good athletes over all and one superstar in Duncan to counter Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.

The Spurs understand they have a helter-skelter, creative, free-spirited, quick-handed point guard from France whose name is Tony Parker and whose sleight-of-hand and jitterbug moves made Derek Fisher seem stodgy. The Spurs understand they have a bench that provides fundamental defense, ferocious rebounding and confident shooting from Malik Rose and fearless, frantic passing and nerveless shot-making from Manu Ginobili, an Argentine who makes his teammates smile.

“You never know with Manu,” Duncan said. “You just never know.”

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You always know about Duncan. You know he will do all the right things. He will use the backboard for bank shots, he will use his strong body to block out, he will play defense with his feet and head. He will give you 27 points and 17 rebounds, as he did against the Lakers.

Then he will give you the sane analysis.

“Until somebody beats them in the playoffs,” Duncan said, “the Lakers are champions. But I like our team.”

Six Spurs scored in double figures. Only one Laker, other than O’Neal and Bryant, scored as many as eight points. Ginobili had 14 points, Rose 10 off the bench for the Spurs. Robert Horry had five points in 28 minutes. Devean George had eight in 27 minutes. Kareem Rush had zero in 11 minutes. Samaki Walker had five or six nice smirks and one basket.

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“We’ve only beaten the Lakers twice,” Spur Coach Gregg Popovich said. He means that O’Neal was absent from two of the wins, making them meaningless. O’Neal was very much present Sunday. He scored 32 points, had 12 rebounds and blocked six shots. He was as active, mobile, involved and Shaq-like as possible. It didn’t matter.

“The Lakers are still the best team on the planet until proved different in the playoffs,” Popovich said. “We’ve been fortunate to beat them twice.”

This is the anti-Sacramento way to behave, trying to pacify the Lakers, trying to keep the Lakers believing it’s still 2002.

But it’s not.

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And each loss is another chip gone from invincibility. For three years the Lakers have won a handful of playoff games because opponents didn’t believe they could counter Shaq and Kobe. Opponents just knew that if Shaq scored 32 and Kobe scored 31, the game was over.

The Spurs know otherwise. They won’t say it. But they know.

They played as if they know. They played as if they didn’t care if Shaq had 32 and Kobe had 31 because Bruce Bowen was going to score 10 and Parker 18 and Jackson 11. They didn’t mind Shaq’s 12 rebounds because they would beat the Lakers on the boards, 50-46. They would shoot better from the field (40% to 38%) and they would have more assists (16 to 12).

They would be a better team. Now for sure. And why not in April too?

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Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com.


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