Cool, Calm Collective

Times Staff Writer

The Lakers were enjoying their dinner at a South Bay restaurant, each receiving a $9,800 watch as a gift from Kobe Bryant, when reality hit.

Their break was over. The San Antonio Spurs were beckoning. The Lakers knew exactly what time it was.

"You know who you're facing," Pau Gasol said earlier in the day. "They know how to get it done."

The Lakers got together again to view a playoff game, this time watching the Spurs finish off New Orleans.

At the restaurant, Bryant gave each of his teammates a Jaeger-LeCoultre watch as thanks for helping him win the most valuable player award. Then the Lakers went their separate ways, knowing what awaited them Wednesday in the opener of the Western Conference finals -- defense, defense, tradition and more defense.

The Spurs and Lakers have a history, obviously, having crisscrossed each other during their various championship runs over the last decade.

The Spurs have won four of the last nine NBA titles, while the Lakers took the first three of the new millennium.

All along, there were series to remember, moments for each franchise to savor, such as a shot with 0.4 seconds left that defined a career.

San Antonio swept the Lakers in 1999 on the way to its first NBA championship. The Lakers returned the favor with a sweep in 2001 on the way to their second title of this decade. The Lakers took the Spurs again in 2002, winning a five-game series on the way to another championship. The Lakers then needed six games to beat the Spurs in 2004, buoyed by Derek Fisher's "0.4" shot in front of a stunned San Antonio crowd in Game 5.

The teams went 2-2 against each other this season, the Lakers winning the most recent meeting, 106-85, at Staples Center a few days before the regular season ended.

Meanwhile, the Lakers showed up Monday in El Segundo for their first full practice since eliminating the Utah Jazz last Friday.

They looked active and spry. Bryant reported no lingering effects from the back spasms that plagued him a week ago.

"It's a good chance to get fresh legs," Bryant said. "I feel 100%."

In fact, all of the players enjoyed the extra rest.

"You don't know how happy we were to be able to close the [Utah] series in six games and not go to a Game 7," Gasol said. "It gave us these extra couple days to prepare ourselves, to disconnect and to freshen up."

They'll need fresh legs against the presumably battle-weary Spurs, who gave up 90.6 points a game, third-best in the league during the regular season.

"I think for them it's just about playing together," Bryant said. "They've been together for so many years. Defensively, they have a clear presence of mind of what they want to do on the floor. When you have a team that's been together for a while, it's always advantageous. We've been together for a while, so it makes it a little easier to read one another."


Forward Trevor Ariza, who hasn't played since Jan. 20 because of a broken bone in his right foot, finished a scrimmage at Monday's practice with an eye-catching reverse dunk. He is expected to return to game action at some point in the West finals.

"He looked good today," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. "There's still some recognition skills [where] he's re-orienting himself to what we do. His speed and athleticism is always a factor. He runs the lanes. His defense is aggressive. There's a lot of things that Trevor does naturally that are very beneficial to team play at both ends of the floor."


A new series means a new start for Jordan Farmar, who has averaged only 3.5 points and shot 26.5% through the first two rounds.

"He was on his heels a little bit having to guard Allen Iverson in the Denver series and [Utah's Deron] Williams is a handful for a 175-pound guard to be giving up 35, 40 pounds to a guy like [him]," Jackson said. "But I thought his defense was much more aggressive the last two games and I enjoyed his effort out there. Even though he looked tentative at the offensive end, I thought he was starting to make a rebound."



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Western finals

How the Lakers got here: They defeated the No. 8-seeded Denver Nuggets, 4-0, in the first round, then defeated No. 4 Utah, 4-2, in the Western Conference semifinals.

How the Spurs got here: They defeated the No. 6 Phoenix Suns, 4-1, in the first round, and eliminated the No. 2 New Orleans Hornets, 4-3, in the semifinals.

Head to head: The teams split four games during the regular season with the home team winning each time.

Nuts and bolts: The Lakers' road to an NBA title, as has been suspected all season, must go through the defending champion Spurs. Kobe Bryant averaged 24.3 points this season against San Antonio. The Lakers went 1-1 against the Spurs with Andrew Bynum in the lineup, 0-1 without Bynum or Pau Gasol available and 1-0 with Gasol.

-- Jonathan Abrams

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