It’s same old song for Pacers, who hate L.A.
Oh, the poor Indiana Pacers. They should have known what was coming. This time, it was Kobe Bryant beating them. In these parts, it’s always going to be somebody, or something.
It would have been understandable had the Pacers felt a bit like Christians entering the Roman Colosseum on Friday night.
It wasn’t just that the lions poised to eat them, a.k.a. the Lakers, entered with a 28-6 record and had arguably the best player in the game in Bryant.
That’s a healthy, smooth-as-silk Bryant. In his last five games, Bryant had hit for 31, 40, 26, 39 and 21 points. This time he got 36, including the spike in Indiana’s heart with three seconds left, bringing a 121-119 victory.
Nor was it that the Pacers were sitting firmly in last place in the NBA’s Central Division at 13-22.
It was more than the obvious. This was unfriendly turf for basketball teams from Indiana. No “Hoosiers” endings in these parts for quite some time, at least against the Lakers.
Matter of fact, at Staples Center, never.
In 10 regular-season games now against the Lakers in the palace Phil Anschutz built and opened in the fall of 1999, Indiana is oh-fer. Zero, Zilch. Nada. It’s always the same. They come, they see, they get stapled.
Same thing in three playoff games.
Before the game started, they played the obligatory “I Love L.A.” Even Randy Newman would have understood if several Pacers players reached for barf bags.
The Pacers had a couple of things going for them. First, they had beaten the Lakers this season, one of the season’s six such aberrations to date. Also, the current cast probably takes little time to ponder such history.
They also had going for them a player named Danny Granger, who scored 16 points in the first half and helped the Pacers stay right in the game, trailing 68-66 at the break. In his previous three games, Granger had 35, 36, and 37 points, so the Lakers had to wonder if 38 was inevitable. Turns out it was 28.
In the first half, the Lakers went back to their habit of playing selective defense. They selected when they wanted to, and against the Pacers in those first 24 minutes, they selected to play none.
They compensated by shooting a torrid 64.3% from the field, with Pau Gasol making eight of nine for 17 points and Bryant scoring 14 more. But Indiana wasn’t far behind. With an occasional Lakers defender wandering into the area, but not often, the Pacers shot 61.5% and a former Lakers ballboy named Mike Dunleavy helped that hot percentage by sinking four of four.
Each team had 19 assists at halftime. That was opposed to a total of seven steals. It was more a game of H-O-R-S-E than a game.
There is even more to the Lakers-Pacers history than just the Staples whitewash.
A landmark moment of that was one month shy of 10 years ago, the Lakers’ last season in the Forum before moving to Staples. To hyperbolize, it was sort of a Valentine’s Day massacre, or at least the prelude of one.
The Pacers won that Feb. 14, 1999 game, 101-99, marking the last time they beat the Lakers in Los Angeles. Larry Bird was the Pacers coach, Reggie Miller the star and Jalen Rose the guy making the clinching free throw.
Shaquille O’Neal played with a groin injury, had 36 points and 17 rebounds and a third-year player named Kobe Bryant made a key three-point shot to keep the Lakers alive.
Del Harris was the Lakers coach and the loss made the Lakers’ record 3-3. Yup, 3-3 in February. It was the lockout season in the NBA. Harris’ team won the next three games, then went on the road, lost three and were 6-6 after a game in Vancouver.
Derek Fisher, then and now a Laker, remembers what happened next.
“I got a call from a friend,” he said Friday night. “He said Del was fired. I was stunned. You media guys weren’t onto that at all. I hadn’t heard a thing.”
Rick Fox was also on that Lakers team, but he said Friday night he couldn’t remember back then.
“I was in love,” he said.
Replacing Harris was Kurt Rambis, now a Lakers assistant, who ran off an NBA record for a new coach with nine straight wins.
That season ended when the Lakers were swept out of the second round of the playoffs by eventual champion San Antonio. It was also the season of the grand Dennis Rodman experiment.
“Oh, man,” Fisher said. “Always something going on that season.”
The next season, Rambis was replaced by some guy name Phil Jackson.
By the end of Friday night’s third quarter, it looked as if the Staples Curse would hold true. Neither team guarded anybody, but Bryant went on an 11-point binge, and the Lakers led, 96-84.
Still, to the end, it wasn’t easy and it was dramatic, Bryant backing Jarrett Jack down to the free-throw line and letting the winner fly.
If you had been a longtime fan of the Pacers, you wouldn’t have needed to watch the shot go in. You would have known.