The Spurs, without their best player and starting point guard, meet the Lakers for the first time since defeating Los Angeles in last season’s Western Conference semifinals.
The lasting image of the Spurs’ 4-2 series win at Staples Center last May was Kobe Bryant sitting on the court in tears.
“I hate this feeling, I don’t ever want to feel it again,” Bryant said at the time.
San Antonio went on to win the NBA championship and Tim Duncan was named league MVP for his domination. But almost six months later, two very different teams will take the court at the SBC Center.
“I won’t back down from anybody,” said Willis, who scored his 17,000th career point in Tuesday’s 80-73 victory over winless Miami. “It’s a challenge, and I don’t mind taking on all challenges.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich returns after serving a one-game suspension for bumping an official on Monday night. Assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo assumed Popovich’s duties on Tuesday.
The Spurs got away with shooting 50 percent from the free-throw line in the first half of Tuesday’s win. Manu Ginobili led San Antonio with 15 points and Rasho Nesterovic added 14 as the Spurs improved to 3-0 at home. They have not lost at the SBC Center since dropping Game 2 of last season’s NBA Finals to the New Jersey Nets.
But to compete with the sharp-shooting Lakers, the Spurs likely will have to score more than the 80 points per game they’re averaging.
Unlike the Spurs having injury threaten the early part of their season, the Lakers’ constant threat has been locker room turmoil.
The acquisition of superstar veterans Karl Malone and Gary Payton, coupled with O’Neal and Bryant, has forged an intimidating foursome. But just a week ago, public feuding between O’Neal and Bryant got ugly, and the team’s chemistry was in question.
But Los Angeles has rolled off four wins to open its season and is averaging 103 points—third-highest in the league.
Before a 113-107 come-from-behind victory over Milwaukee on Tuesday, in which Bryant scored 31 points and had two crucial 3-pointers, the players seemed ready to put the public rift behind them.
“We met, we talked, it’s over,” said O’Neal, who scored 23 points. “He took some tough shots, he played well, he carried us in the fourth quarter.”
After a stop in San Antonio, the Lakers wrap up their nine-day trip with visits to New Orleans and Memphis.
“Everybody’s fine. We’re anxious about this season,” said Bryant, who played 40 minutes Tuesday and showed no ill-effects from offseason knee surgery. “We can do some spectacular things this season. I think everybody’s excited about that. This is a big road trip for us.”
STANDINGS (through Nov. 4): Lakers - 1st place, Pacific Division. Spurs - 1st place (tied), 1/2 GB, Midwest Division.
TEAM LEADERS: Lakers - Bryant, 22.3 ppg; O’Neal, 12.3 rpg; Payton, 8.5 apg. Spurs - Duncan, 16.5 ppg and 12.8 rpg; Ginobili, 4.8 apg.
2002-03 SEASON SERIES: Spurs, 4-0.
LAST MEETING: May 17; Spurs, 110-82. At Los Angeles, Duncan scored 37 points and had 16 rebounds to send the Spurs to the Western Conference finals. San Antonio scored 44 of the game’s final 62 points to advance and snap the Lakers’ streak of 13 straight playoff series wins.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Lakers - 2-0 on the road; Spurs - 3-0 at home.