So the Lakers return to the honeymoon capital of Texas, home of the lovely Riverwalk and the obliging Spurs, which the three-time defending champions have come to regard as their personal resort in recent years, to get the bad news once more:
Room service is running a little slow. The skies are cloudy all day. Recent years are over.
The Spurs are no longer obliging. Actually, they never were, it was only a fantasy -- one more illusion, stacked up until they seemed to reach the sky -- the Lakers indulged themselves in:
We own these guys. We can beat them whenever we have to. They’re them. We’re us.
When the Spurs swept them this season, Phil Jackson pooh-poohed it. When Kobe Bryant told him it’s now the Lakers’ turn to sweep them, Phil, one of the great kidders of his time, thought it amusing enough to pass on to the press and, of course, the Spurs.
This just in: No sweep possible, at least not by the Lakers.
Reality, or perception, changes from one series to another, like one of those toy kaleidoscopes, in which you turn the barrel a hair and a whole new picture presents itself.
Two days ago, the Lakers looked like their old invincible selves, and, whatever their handicaps, capable of moving into the next round for what everyone thought would be the real test against the Kings.
Now yon Lakers have a lean and endangered look.
Gee, what could have gone wrong?
They dug themselves a hole. They were thin. They’re running short on miracles.
In other words, it’s the stuff everybody already knew about going into this, their buzzards-coming-home-to-roost postseason.
“Well, we anticipated this right from the start, as a basketball team and as a coaching staff,” Jackson said Tuesday, no more stressed than he (yawn) ever is.
“So we’re not surprised by this. We said health, strength, all these kinds of things going in a fourth [title] run is necessarily a big part of our challenge this year and to consistently play is going to be another challenge, because of the boredom that sets in ... when you get to this level where you’ve got to bring that enthusiasm.
“Well, the enthusiasm’s here. It’s the playoffs. There’s no excuse for us not performing well at this particular time. The things, maladies, that have come about by injuries to two of our small forwards, you know, we have to accept that and move on.
“And that’s going to be the challenge for us. We’re looking forward to it, actually.”
What choice do they have at this late date?
Jackson excels at painting a silver lining around whatever problem is at hand, but if this doesn’t end happily for the Lakers, you can expect to hear him say, in the same matter-of-fact voice, he knew they were in trouble a l-o-n-g time ago.
Coaching his ninth title defense, and not by coincidence, Jackson understands the strain and gives his teams an easy ride. Still, he was always the No. 1 or No. 2-seeded team, except in 1994 after Michael Jordan retired and the Bulls were No. 3 ... until the last two seasons, when his Lakers fell to No. 3 and 5.
They didn’t lose their margin for error when Rick Fox and Devean George were hurt. It started ebbing last summer and was all but gone by Christmas, when they were 11-19.
Of course, they’ve been in fixes like this annually and have always survived, as in ’01 when they swept the No. 1 Spurs, starting with two games here.
That seems like another time and was, in fact, in another venue. The Spurs used to rattle around in the Alamodome, the downtown white elephant. Now they’re in their own custom-built SBC Arena five miles north, located scenically across from a soft-drink plant, amid the truck depots and mini-marts.
The key was land donated by the county in a civic drive to keep Tim Duncan. Happily for the Spurs, he didn’t insist on calling it Tim’s Dunk-In, or something like that and let them sell the naming rights to a telephone company.
The question is not, as Mr. Laughs, the Laker coach put it, if the new Spurs are “different” or “better.”
It’s not even a question of whether they’re as good as the Lakers, because they probably aren’t. It’s a question of whether the Spurs can win three more games before the Lakers win four.
The Spurs are definitely better. They still might not have enough scorers to help Duncan ... but they have more than a year ago.
Tony Parker (three for 10 from the field in Game 1) and Stephen Jackson (0 for 6) may not be ready, but they’re readier, and now they have Manu Ginobili, an up-and-coming difference-maker. David Robinson is as ready as he’ll ever be, as opposed to coming back for Game 3 after a two-week layoff last spring.
Barring the return of Robert Horry, the Spurs can cut the Lakers down to a manageable size if they can keep things difficult for Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, without turning Derek Fisher loose.
Before this spring, Horry could lie in the weeds for months at a time and no one noticed. Now the Lakers don’t need one of his miracles (yet), but they do need him.
There’s something to be said for confidence, if not quite so much of it. The Lakers have a remarkable ability to raise their game when needed, which would be more admirable if they didn’t lower it so often when it’s not needed.
Tuesday they were relaxed and loose. O’Neal, who often ducks the press under happier circumstances, talked at length and without attitude.
Jackson laughed at being told he was a leading philosopher (“Like Socrates,” he offered), about having no confidence in his rookies (“They’re rookies, after all”) and the prospect of starting Brian Shaw (“Why would he start? He’s 40 years old, isn’t he?”)
Shaw, a child, really, at 37, is expected to start, although as Jackson also informed the press, “It’s none of your business; it’s the scorer’s business, five minutes before the game.”
What would we do without coaches’ little surprises?
Of course, it would mean more if Jackson could choose between, say, Shaw and Ginobili, rather than Shaw and Kareem Rush.
If history, current as well as recent, means anything, the Lakers will bring it all tonight.
Not that that guarantees them anything. Losing your margin for error means it’s not just about you any more.
By the way, the Spurs have $14 million worth of cap space this summer to shop for that little something extra, like Jermaine O’Neal, Jason Kidd and/or Gary Payton.
It’s a Laker world until the edifice falls, but the rebels are really getting restless.