Ball Don't Lie - NBA

Los Angeles Lakers 93, San Antonio Spurs 91

They're not dead yet, San Antonio could win three straight to take the series and while I would be surprised, I wouldn't be shocked. Let's face facts, though: the Spurs are more or less finished.

That part, though we picked the Lakers to win and know exactly why the team has San Antonio in a 3-1 hole, still seems a little shocking. Knowing the game and understanding the science is one thing, but it's still a weird sight to see Mike Tyson on the canvas, eight seconds into a ten count.

We'll get into the particulars of the game later, hopefully a few hours away from the thought of the refereeing vicissitudes has mellowed your edge just a little, but for now we should remind ourselves of why, exactly, these Spurs are on the ropes.

(Can you believe we're heaping this much reverence and working under these sorts of conditions regarding a team that has won exactly one NBA championship in a row? Yes, Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich have established a Spurs dynasty - of sorts, and I've no interest in getting into what exactly makes and doesn't make a dynasty - but this isn't some team wrapping up the tail end of a three-peat. That's says more about the Spurs than us, I think, that they've earned that sort of respect.)

The Spurs, as presently constructed, are getting so little, from so many. From the bigs to the bench to Manu Ginobili at times and Tony Parker in relation to what he usually does against teams with point guards on the wrong side of 32 (no 30-point games for Tony, ‘ere), the team is living off of its defense, Tim Duncan, and scraps.

Ginobili's frustrations have been well documented, and it is as simple as Los Angeles forcing him and his bum wheel to the right, but he's not alone in coming up short. Consider that the team's power forward tandem (Duncan's a center, so stop right there) of Fabricio Oberto and Robert Horry contributed a whopping two points and seven rebounds in over 37 minutes of play in the Game 4 loss.

I don't care how many good screens Oberto sets, or about the spacing that Horry "provides" (that's questionable), you can't have a single position contributing so little unless that position is offering the sort of lockdown defense we see from a Bruce Bowen (at times) or Shane Battier.

The observers, even the mainstream ones, seem to have come around on Horry. In fact, were it not for Bob hitting an open three-pointer in Game 5 of the 2005 NBA Finals, he'd probably be regarded as the guy had a great start, shot Los Angeles out of the playoffs in 2003, shot the Lakers into the Finals in 2004 (as a member of the San Antonio Spurs, unfortunately), and hasn't really done much since.

From the highest of highs to the lowest of, well, last night. I'm not saying any of his recent play since 2003 would mitigate the steely touch he provided from 1994 to 2002, but things would be a bit more balanced when it comes to our expectations of him today, and where he stands when his career ends.

Think of that the next time you hear a writer championing Horry's case for the Hall of Fame based on seven points and 4.8 rebounds per game on the career, and a supposed batch of "clutch" play. A shot either goes in, or out. For years it went in, and for years it's gone out, in spite of his reputation.

I'm not including Kurt Thomas in this dubious bunch because he spelled Tim Duncan, but he wasn't immune - giving up an offensive rebound off a missed free throw in his 56 seconds of play, and managing a remarkable -4 in that turn.

On top of that, what do we have? It's fun to watch Bruce Bowen work on Kobe Bryant, but he managed just seven points and two rebounds in 35 minutes of run. Brent Barry's 23 points off the bench were great to watch, but he also missed three or maybe four wide open perimeter looks (Phil Jackson's defense tends to leave one guy open, that guy has to make at least three-quarters of his open shots - Reggie Miller's spot-on observation -- or the damage is done).

Manu (seven points, six assists in 36 minutes) is shot, Mike Finley and Ime Udoka combined for zero points in 17 minutes, and that - save for Tim Duncan (29 and 17, three assists, three steals, three blocks, dead-set legend) is it.

Saying things like, "what he does doesn't usually show up in the box score" sounds right, but it's absolute rubbish when you think about it. Tip-outs and offensive rebounds show up in the box score. Nailing jumpers with the shot clock dwindling, that shows up in the box score. Steals and blocks show up. Getting to the line, that shows up. Drawing charges may not show up in the typical box score, but that's why we have plus/minus, or these little game re-caps to relay the information.

At some point, the Spurs can't keep passing the buck: they have to do something that shows up in the damned box score. Sure, you can have a couple of guys who have the greatest four-point, four-rebound game ever, but your nine-man rotation can't consist of six of them.

This sort of falloff is typical, even for the Spurs. In fact, the past is littered with defending champs who fell short mostly because their rotations featured a cadre of players who were giving them absolutely nothing. Tim Duncan was injured in 2000 as the Spurs defended their first ring, but there was a reason that team was a distant third in the Western race, and those reasons were Mario Elie, Jason Jackson, and Jerome Kersey. Lovely chaps, all, but past it by 1999-00.

We've referenced the Lakers falling short in 2003, but Robert Horry wasn't alone. Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak did a miserable job trying to accrue depth for the defending champs, and the result was a roster that looked like this. And before you start to overrate guys like Rick Fox (a fine player, just not at that point), Devean George, Samaki Walker, and Slava Medvedenko just because you've seen them on national TV quite a bit ... go here instead. Great song.

The Heat fell short last year not just because the Bulls were quick and the team's prime was injured, it was because 3-through-15 were junk. You need 3-through-15. The Lakers have a 3-through-15. San Antonio does not.

What else happened? Well, the Spurs ran a bunch of pick and roll, which makes sense on some levels, mainly the ones that tell you that the Lakers have been looking at game tape of the Spurs for over a week, and that Phil Jackson may have had these guys so full of "supposed to"'s that having to improvise defensively (making quick decisions in screen and roll defense) might cause some Laker brain leakage.

But think about who we're dealing with when you try to execute a pick and roll against the Lakers: Derek Fisher, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and help from any number of Los Angeles' power/small forward tweeners. The first three guys are quite long, and the whole batch of them are quite quick. It might work for a play or two (one Tim Duncan slip for a tough running jump hook in the second quarter was nice to behold), but it's not something you can bank on. And San Antonio kept banking on it.

The Lakers played a hell of a game, they're a hell of a team, and it's always great to see one of those live up to expectation. Every San Antonio run in the first half seemed to be met with a quick Pau Gasol post-up and answer. Lamar Odom was aggressive and undeterred and MADE HIS FREE THROWS (8-9).

San Antonio held its own on the defensive glass in the second half, but not before the Lakers ran up a 20-2 second-chance points advantage in the first. The Lakers, I'm not sure we've even seen them at their best in this series, and this team is so, so good.

The officiating is the nasty little subplot that I want nothing to do with, but I'm not going to insult you by pretending that it isn't a part of the story.

Kobe Bryant took 29 shots, making 14, and didn't go to the free throw line once. Not a single time. And, as someone who has now watched this game twice, I counted two different instances where he deserved a pair at the line. Two fouls (not overt ones, but ones I would have called, with my little whistle and black sneakers) in 41 minutes. Not the crime of the century.

Derek Fisher's jumper in the waning seconds hit the rim, you would think these refs would understand the angles (if the ball starts spinning differently and stops following through on its natural arc), but that's how it goes.

Derek Fisher also fouled Brent Barry. I don't know if I'd call it, I don't know how I feel about it, but I can tell you that it's a no-win situation.

Ludden nailed it: if you do call it, then the Spurs win a game that they didn't deserve to win. If you don't, you're stuck in the midst of the nonsense we're going to hear for the next day and a half. And when you're pounding away at your keyboard or yelling back at a certain Bristol-based TV station later tonight, kindly remember that we will remember NONE of this in a week's time. It's fodder for Wednesday, the 28th, and no longer.

It's a game, and there are strict calls, and necessary no-calls, and blown no-calls, and should-have-been no-calls, and you're not going to get every call right, or correct, or both. It's a damned impossible game to referee, and for every game-deciding call or no-call you might see at the end of a game, there are dozens that take place in the midst of an NBA week that happen while you're in the loo and away from the screen in the middle of the second quarter.

It doesn't mean that it is "fair" in explicit, literal terms, but these no-calls are what are usually right in the end, most of the time. Should Bobby Knight have been fired or even reprimanded for grabbing the arm of an Indiana University student after said student sneered, "hey, Knight;" back in 2000? Probably not. The student was a punk and a smartass, and that's not how you talk to adults.

Should Knight have been fired, regardless of the straw that broke the camels back? Definitely. He was a punk and a smartass and, well, that's not how you talk to adults.

So, the end doesn't justify anything. We hate that this is how the game finished, but we don't mind how it resolved itself, and that's how it goes sometimes.

And whether you missed Game 4, just saw the box score, or were there with eyes glued to your set, understand this: the better team won. Any look up and down that box score will tell you as much, and any run through of those 48 minutes will remind you of as much. Pity it had to end that way, but everything is in order. And, in spite of what will be shouted at you for the next 48 hours, everything will continue apace.

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