PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference semifinals; Game 1.
So the Lakers upgraded their roster, and now it is time to see if it paid off when they try to get revenge against the defending NBA champions and hottest team in the league.
Los Angeles and San Antonio begin their fifth playoff meeting in six seasons when they open the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals at the SBC Center.
The Spurs ended the Lakers’ run of three straight titles with a six-game victory in last year’s West semifinals, punctuated by a 110-82 rout in Los Angeles in the series clincher.
While the changes were good enough to help Los Angeles win the Pacific Division and its first-round playoff series, even Malone isn’t sure if they will be enough against a San Antonio team that hasn’t lost since March 23.
“They’ve won 15 straight,” Malone said. “They’re definitely the hottest team right now, and they’re the champs.”
One of these teams has won the NBA title each of the last five years. The Spurs swept the Lakers on their way to the 1999 title, then Los Angeles beat San Antonio twice during its three-year run from 2000-02.
“This is the moment we’ve been waiting for all season,” Bryant said. “We got them two years in a row (in 2001 and 2002), and they got us last year. We’ll see if we can return the favor this year.”
Though the teams are familiar with each other because of all the playoff meetings, the Lakers are far from the team they were last spring. Bryant and O’Neal both averaged more than 25 points in that series, but no other Los Angeles player contributed more than 10 per game.
That’s where Malone and Payton come in. San Antonio now has to worry about at least four players that can take the key shots.
Payton hasn’t performed as well as Malone. He has complained about his role in the offense and averaged just 8.4 points while playing 32.8 minutes per game in the first round.
He could be much more valuable in this series, however. Payton averaged 17.5 points on 61.4 percent shooting against the Spurs this season.
His counterpart at point guard, Tony Parker, comes off a superb first-round series. He averaged 21 points and 8.5 assists while shooting 52.7 percent from the floor and 11-for-16 (68.8 percent) from 3-point range.
Parker’s strong play was the biggest reason San Antonio’s offense—not usually the team’s strength—was so impressive in the Spurs’ first-round sweep of Memphis. The Spurs shot 50.7 percent as a team, including 47.7 percent from behind the arc, and averaged 97.5 points.
Despite their collection of offensive talent, the Lakers weren’t as sharp in their five-game victory over the Houston Rockets. Los Angeles averaged just 90 points and shot under 43 percent, and easily could have lost two of the games it won if Houston had been able to execute better down the stretch.
But the Lakers got big plays when they needed them from Bryant, who averaged 24.4 points, and Malone, who had a 30-point outing while adding 18 points and 10.4 boards per game.
Malone will be another key in this series. Besides the scoring and rebounding the Lakers need him to provide, they also need him to play good defense against Tim Duncan, who has always had a decided advantage against whomever the Lakers had at power forward.
Malone averaged 13.3 points and 12.3 rebounds against the Spurs this season, including a triple-double in the Lakers’ 103-87 victory on Nov. 28.
The player Malone replaced, Robert Horry, joined the Spurs and has continued his strong postseason play. After a somewhat quiet regular season, Horry averaged 11 points in the first round, shooting 61.5 percent and making 6-of-10 3-pointers.
“He’s stepped up his game in the playoffs, like he’s always done,” O’Neal said.
The Spurs’ defense remains one of the best in the NBA, and it will need to prove it against the Lakers. Bruce Bowen will again be called upon to make things difficult for Bryant, while Rasho Nesterovic has David Robinson’s old role of defending O’Neal, and must do a capable job so Duncan is not forced to wear himself out doing it.
Los Angeles earned the No. 2 seed by winning its division, but San Antonio has home-court advantage because its 57-25 record was one game better. The winner of the series will have not only knocked off its rival, but also will likely be favored to win another championship.
“L.A. is the team everybody loves to see get beat,” Duncan said. “They’re the team everybody has been talking about all season long. To get where we want to go, we have to get through them.”
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Lakers - No. 2 seed; beat Houston Rockets 4-1, first round. Spurs - No. 3 seed; beat Memphis Grizzlies 4-0, first round.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Lakers - Bryant, 24.4 ppg and 6.2 apg; O’Neal, 11.2 rpg; Spurs - Duncan, 24.3 ppg and 10.0 rpg; Parker, 8.5 apg.
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Lakers, 3-1. Los Angeles won the first three meetings, though neither Duncan nor Parker played in the first game and all three came in the first 5 1/2 weeks of the season. The Spurs avoided the sweep and snapped the Lakers’ 11-game winning streak with a 95-89 victory on April 4 at Staples Center. Bryant scored 25.8 points per game and Duncan averaged 19.7 points and 13 rebounds.