PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference semifinals; Spurs lead 2-0.
A loss in this game could signal the beginning of the end of the Los Angeles Lakers’ dynasty.
Faced with an offseason of uncertainty if they lose this series, the Lakers can’t afford to fall into a 3-0 hole against a San Antonio Spurs team that has not lost in six weeks.
“We have a team with a nebulous future,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said Saturday. “I went down the line with every one of them. It’s a team that has to play for the now. It has to play for tomorrow’s game.”
“Everybody signed on to see what this team could do,” Payton said. “If it doesn’t happen, we can’t sit here and cry about it. A lot of people might not be here (next year).”
There has yet to be any indication this group of Lakers will be playing together after this series, in which they have suffered 10-point losses in each of the first two games at San Antonio.
“It’s got to get better is how we look at it right now,” Malone said.
While no team has ever overcome a 3-0 deficit, just seven have rallied to win a seven-game series after losing the first two games. The only time the Lakers did it was in 1969 against the San Francisco Warriors.
The Lakers are returning to Los Angeles with a 2-0 deficit against San Antonio in the conference semifinals for the second straight year. They won Games 3 and 4 last season, only to lose the next two, and the Spurs went on to win the championship.
This San Antonio squad has gone 6-0 in the playoffs after closing the regular season with 11 straight victories. The Spurs haven’t lost since falling at Minnesota on March 23.
“They’re due for a loss, man,” Lakers forward Rick Fox said. “We are due to play a much better game. We’re confident we’re not out of the series.”
Los Angeles had opportunities to win the first two games, but was outscored 26-13 in the fourth quarter of Game 1 and 15-7 down the stretch of Wednesday’s 95-85 defeat.
San Antonio is hoping to continue doing a good job taking care of the basketball. The Spurs have committed just 23 turnovers while forcing 38.
“Things can change quickly, so we have to keep our wits about us, try to stay composed and do the things we normally do and hope that the shots continue to go down,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.
Popovich is thrilled with the leadership of point guard Tony Parker, who has thoroughly outplayed Gary Payton. The 21-year-old Parker has 50 points and 14 assists with only two turnovers in the series.
He’s made Payton—once among the league’s top defenders—look every bit of his 35 years of age and caused Jackson to consider sticking Bryant on Parker defensively on a regular basis.
“If they give me the call, if they give me the order, I’ll do it,” said Bryant, voted to the NBA’s All-Defensive first team this season.
“Gary’s an excellent defender, they’re running a lot of pick and rolls,” Bryant quickly added. “For people pointing a finger at Gary, that’s not fair. Gary knows how to play pick and rolls. There has to be a team effort.”
Many of those pick and rolls come with Parker and Tim Duncan, who had 24 points in Game 2 despite going scoreless in the fourth quarter. Parker scored eight of his 30 points in the final period to help offset Duncan’s quiet finish.
“He’s been great,” Duncan said of Parker. “He has been taking over in games and it’s so great to have that beside me. He’s shooting the ball really well and been real aggressive.”
While Payton remains unhappy with his limited role in the offense—he has 11 points on 4-of-18 shooting in the series—Malone has been ineffective against Duncan. The 40-year-old forward has scored just 11.5 points per game after averaging 18 in the first round.
The unimpressive performance of those two offseason acquisitions Wednesday, along with Bryant getting just 15 points and eight assists, rendered Shaquille O’Neal’s big day meaningless. O’Neal had 32 points and 15 rebounds in Game 2 despite his continuing struggles at the foul line, going 2-for-7 on Wednesday and 18-of-64 (28.1 percent) in the playoffs.
“No time for excuses, no time for sulking,” O’Neal said. “It’s time to get it done. We have to be perfect at the little stuff. The things we’ve been doing are simple mistakes at crucial times.”
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Spurs - Duncan, 25.2 ppg and 9.7 rpg; Parker, 8.0 apg. Lakers - Bryant, 24.0 ppg and 6.1 apg; O’Neal, 12.0 rpg.