A finish most foul

SAN ANTONIO – Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant and Gregg Popovich all agreed that Fisher didn’t foul Brent Barry. They’re also all wrong. Fisher landed on Barry’s shoulder, and that was revealing for more than one reason.

Somehow Fisher has gone from Los Angeles to Golden State to Utah back to Los Angeles, and he’s still standing in the San Antonio Spurs’ way?

Joey Crawford naturally played a role in this story, too. When Fisher went up and Barry stayed down, the one ref staring directly at the play was the same ref who didn’t work last year’s playoffs because he ejected Tim Duncan for laughing. This time Crawford stayed silent, and this time the Spurs weren’t laughing. At least one Spur privately saw this as yet another chapter in the NBA’s Crawford Conspiracy.

But he, too, was wrong. This wasn’t a conspiracy. Just like with Fisher’s 0.4-second fling four years ago, the Spurs didn’t deserve to win. These young Los Angeles Lakers were better. They’ve been the better team in this series, and on Tuesday they grew up some more.

Didn’t the Lakers just beat the Spurs at their own game? With defense, toughness and a little luck?

That recipe has given the Spurs a display case filled with four championship trophies, and it now is why the Lakers are five victories from adding a 15th to their own. The Spurs have more than their aging, tired legs to worry about. If the Lakers prove to be as resilient in Game 5 as they were on Tuesday, the champs’ next trip to the AT&T Center will be to clean out their lockers.

These Lakers aren’t quite championship-tough just yet. There’s a reason why Phil Jackson has continued to use “Pau Gasol” and “weenie” in the same sentence, and even Bryant had his own brain-locked moment Tuesday. With Manu Ginobili’s three-pointer having pulled the Spurs within four, Bryant could have bled the clock until there were only 18 seconds left. Instead, he burned only nine seconds with a botched drive to the rim.

“We talked about the play before that not being a great play,” Jackson said, “and then we doubled it up with that one.”

More often than not, though, these Lakers have learned fast. Routed in Game 3, Jackson chided them for not being aggressive enough. The result? They exposed the Spurs’ small-ball lineups, punishing them for 20 second-chance points off 11 offensive rebounds in the first half. The Spurs played good defense but too often failed to finish it with a rebound.

“That takes a lot out of you every time you have to gear up again, sit down in front of someone and try to get another stop,” Duncan said.

After watching Ginobili go for 30 points on Sunday, Bryant took the lead assignment in defending the Spurs’ frenetic guard, holding him without a basket until nearly halfway through the final quarter. “If we were going to go down with him shooting,” Bryant said, “I wanted to make sure he was shooting in my face.”

All night, the Spurs chased Bryant’s Lakers. They tied the score twice in the third quarter and closed within two points on seven other occasions in the second half. Never, however, did the Spurs take the lead.

Game 3, Bryant said, had taught the Lakers how hard, how fast, they needed to play against the champs. When the Spurs made their push, the Lakers pushed back. They also fought through their own adversity; if any team had a right to gripe about the officiating, it was Los Angeles. Four different Lakers had three fouls before halftime, and Bryant now has one free throw to show for the 52 shots he attempted in the two games in San Antonio.

“It is impossible to take 29 shots and not be fouled,” Jackson said, “but tonight was one of those exceptions, I guess.”

Fisher’s non-call also helped erase another possible officiating mistake. Fisher threw up a too-short shot from the baseline that skipped off Robert Horry’s leg out of bounds with 5.6 seconds left. The officials ruled the shot didn’t hit the rim and left only two seconds on the shot clock. Replays appeared to indicate otherwise. With a fresh shot clock, the Spurs would have been forced to foul.

Instead, the Spurs got one last chance to pull out an improbable victory. They had hoped to get Ginobili a clean look from the corner, but Bryant stayed with him. Ginobili then ran above the key and sprung Barry from Sasha Vujacic with a screen. Barry had kept the Spurs close with a season-high 23 points, and as Horry’s inbounds pass came to him, he figured he would have a wide-open look to win the game.

So did Fisher. Recognizing what was about to happen, the Lakers’ heady point guard left Michael Finley and raced toward Barry.

“He made a heck of a read,” Barry said.

As Barry turned, Fisher collided with him. Barry took a step to the right and launched a desperation shot that never had a chance. Duncan and Ginobili both said if Barry had gone straight up and tried to sell the contact a little better, he might have drawn the foul, but neither would fault him for trying to get an open shot. Even an on-the-floor foul would have resulted in two free throws.

“If I was the official,” Popovich said, “I wouldn’t have called that a foul.”

Said Barry: “That shouldn’t be called in the Western Conference finals.”

Barry’s wrong. Crawford should have called it. But maybe Crawford already knew what the Spurs should have known.

On this night, just like four years ago, the Lakers were better.

Johnny Ludden is the NBA editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Johnny a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, May 28, 2008