A Lakers SOS: Same Old Spurs

Old Spurs never die . . .

At least not to this point, no matter how ready the Lakers were to see them go.

For anyone still wondering about the answer to that question the Lakers wouldn't take -- "Who do you want to play?" -- this isn't it.

Taking nothing away from the young Hornets, the Lakers have no nightmares about trips to New Orleans.

On the other hand, as far as the Lakers are concerned, San Antonio is hell with a Riverwalk running through it.

The Spurs swept the Lakers in 1999 before their title run started and eliminated the Lakers again in 2003 to end their title run.

Of course, the Lakers swept the Spurs back in 2001 and eliminated them in 2002 and 2004, but even some of the victories were harrowing.

Take 2004, when the Spurs won the first two games in San Antonio.

Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, whose contract was running out, said his team's future was "nebulous."

Gary Payton said it wasn't his fault Tony Parker kept going by him ("Let me get in the pick-and-roll 65 times and I'll bet I beat you too. . . . Somebody's got to be the scapegoat but you guys don't want to put it on who it's really supposed to be, huh?")

That, of course, was Shaquille O'Neal . . . whose stepfather, Phillip Harrison, had just zinged Kobe Bryant in the press ("Let's stop the drama and play ball").

Then the Lakers evened the series and went back to San Antonio, where in Game 5 Tim Duncan put the Spurs ahead with a running one-hander from the top of the key with 0.4 seconds left . . . before Derek Fisher won it with his 18-foot half-hook.

San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich called it "the cruelest loss I've ever been involved in."

In the jubilant winning dressing room, a dehydrated Bryant had to be hooked up to an IV.

Of the eight Spurs who played that night, five remain (Duncan, Parker, Manu Ginobili, Bruce Bowen, Robert Horry), so you can see why the Lakers would just as soon play 28 other teams.

Not that anything is the same.

Except for Bryant, Fisher and Luke Walton, this is a new Lakers team while the remaining Spurs are four years older.

The Spurs were already thought to be in decline two years ago when they fell to Dallas in the West semifinals.

If Dallas got a lot of calls in that series (Dirk Nowitzki going to the free-throw line to win Game 3 after stepping on Duncan's foot, Nowitzki going over Duncan's back to keep him from scoring at the end of regulation in Game 7), the Spurs couldn't cover the athletic Mavericks' small lineups and worried they had been passed by.

Last season with Dallas far out ahead on its 67-win pace, Popovich took the unusual step of announcing he would stand pat . . . looking like he was trying to end the debate about making trades in his own mind as well as everyone else's.

Of course, the Spurs then went on to win the title.

This season has been even more improbable with Popovich bent on conserving his stars, whatever the cost.

In January he sent Parker home from a trip with a sore foot.

In April he sat Ginobili out for the last three games because of a strained groin, including a 106-85 loss to the Lakers in Staples Center.

Popovich said before that game that Ginobili had begged to play, looking like it had taken all the conviction he could muster to turn him down.

Looking out on their feet, the Spurs finished 4-3, including a 17-point loss at home to the Phoenix Suns . . . who turned out to be their first-round opponent.

Only the stoic Popovich knows what this took out of him, but sideline reporters now make out their wills before approaching him for the mandatory in-game interview.

The classic was with TNT's David Aldridge, who asked an inoffensive question during the Phoenix series.

"You've answered your own question," said Popovich, walking away with a little head shake, as if trying to clear the cobwebs.

If this has been Popovich at his most desperate, it was also Popovich at his most brilliant.

Hacking O'Neal, a tactic he disliked -- and had never resorted to in five playoff series against Shaq -- helped the Spurs get back in Game 1 of the first round after trailing the Suns by 16 points.

That was the game Michael Finley tied with a three-pointer with 15 seconds left in regulation . . . and Duncan tied again with three seconds left in overtime with his only three-pointer of the season . . . before the Spurs won in double overtime. After that the Spurs came from 14 behind to win Game 2, with Parker running another 65 pick-and-rolls at Shaq, and wound up closing the Suns out in five games.

And after that the Spurs somehow won Game 7 in New Orleans after losing Games 1, 2 and 5 there by 19, 18 and 22.

If youth must be served, no one said when. In Game 7 the Spurs got six three-pointers from players 35 or older -- two apiece from Finley, 35, Bowen, 36, and Horry, 37.

You have to knock the champions out, personally, as the Lakers just learned, unhappily.



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