The Lakers weren’t even in the house Monday night. They had rented it out to the kids down the street. Probably some kind of community service thing.
But the Lakers were still around. You could feel them. In the corners, hanging around the hallways, in the air ducts. Even when they aren’t there, they are.
That’s because the guys playing the kids down the street, the San Antonio Spurs, are still pretty good and have four NBA titles since 1999, one as recently as 2007, and are a worry to Lakers fans, who now, at last count, number 15 million. And that’s just in California.
It’s all Lakers, all the time, and if Manny doesn’t sign, they’ll just do away with second place in this city.
So, when the Spurs are in town, it means taking a measure of the future. That means both a week from Thursday, when the Lakers are in San Antonio, and sometime in May, when projections have the Lakers playing the Spurs in the NBA’s Western Conference finals.
Remember last season’s conference finals? The Lakers won the series, 4-1, but not before the Spurs had a chance to make it 2-2, when Derek Fisher fell on top of a shooting Brent Barry in the last seconds of a two-point game. All three referees inhaled and the Lakers finished it out in the next game.
So Lakers fans are understandably wary. You can’t get to the Celtics, or whatever powerhouse comes out of the East, if you can’t get past the Spurs.
The Spurs have this 6-foot-11 tower named Tim Duncan. He’s been around since Moses, but he doesn’t appear to be slowing down so much as getting wiser. He still averages around 20 points a game and is stoppable only if you put a Hummer on him.
Then there is this little guy named Tony Parker, who plays like a sleek sports car and lives like one too. He is married to TV star Eva Longoria and is also an NBA superstar. It isn’t fair. God should spread things around. You can’t guard Parker unless you are a cowboy with a lasso.
When the Spurs played the kids from down the street Monday night, their third assassin wasn’t even around. That’s Manu Ginobili, kind of an older version of Parker, who is about a week away from returning from an injury.
Ginobili is the Argentine athlete of the decade, Parker is from France and Duncan is from the moon, by way of the Virgin Islands, so psychological testing to create strategy is useless.
They have some new people, notably a red-haired guy named Matt Bonner, who played basketball at a football school, but did well enough at Florida to get a shot with the Spurs, and has delivered nicely by leading the NBA in three-point shooting percentage.
But what was really intriguing to Lakers worriers Monday night was word of more on the Spurs’ horizon. Talk has it that the last needed ingredient to the San Antonio broth, a rugged, rebounding, physical basher, is just one ink pen and several million dollars away.
Sunday night, 6-10 veteran power forward Drew Gooden got the Sacramento Kings to buy out his contract for $7.1 million. They did so just 59 minutes before a deadline that would have made him ineligible for the playoffs, and while both the Cleveland Cavaliers -- Gooden’s old team -- and the Dallas Mavericks are interested, you get the feeling the Spurs are drooling.
You also get the feeling Pau Gasol is already getting a headache. A Duncan bump here and a Gooden bang there and Pau could be more bruise than basketball player.
The coach of the kids down the street, Mike Dunleavy, was asked before the game about a Lakers-Spurs Western finals.
“With Andrew Bynum, the Lakers seem to have the edge,” Dunleavy said, “because they’d have the big presence in the middle for Parker’s drives.”
But if you add Gooden to the sauce?
Dunleavy opened his eyes wider and rolled them a bit. Translation: Maybe a different story.
The coach of the Spurs has white hair and a beard and is known as Pop. That helps the fans remember he is older than Duncan and Ginobili and Michael Finley and Bruce Bowen and several other ageless relics who seem to keep it going on this team.
Gregg Popovich was in a good mood before the game, and while he wouldn’t talk about all the Gooden talk, he smiled a lot when answering related questions.
Gooden is due to come off waivers Wednesday, and Clippers broadcaster Ralph Lawler, an old sage who has been around almost as long as Duncan, asked Popovich how closely the Spurs were watching the waiver wire.
After a pause and a smile, Popovich deadpanned, “We are watching the waiver wire professionally. You always have to be ready to improve your team.”
Popovich toyed with a guy who asked all his questions from behind a home video camera. To everything the guy asked, Popovich paused, then answered: “Sure.” Then the guy asked him about his days as coach at “Pomona Military” and Popovich feigned anger, on behalf of the honor of that fine academic institution Pomona-Pitzer and his coaching days there years ago.
You can catch the interview on MyHighSchoolFilmClassAssignment.com.
Then, it was time to play the game. The kids from down the street made it exciting when Fred Jones flung in a half-court shot at the first-quarter buzzer to cut the Spurs’ lead to 26-21. But soon, Pop’s Pistols were emptying barrels from all over the court.
The final score was 106-78, and Drew Gooden wasn’t even around. Maybe he’ll never be. But it’s understandable for 15 million Lakers fans to shiver for a day or so, just in case.