PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference semifinals; Lakers lead, 3-2.
It will take the heart of a champion for the Spurs to overcome a devastating defeat and force a decisive seventh game back in San Antonio.
They’ll look to do just that when they meet the Lakers in Game 6 at Staples Center as the teams resume what has already become one of the more memorable playoff series in recent history.
The Spurs appeared to be cruising toward the conference finals after taking the first two games in San Antonio. But Los Angeles responded with two straight wins at home before Thursday night’s classic at the SBC Center.
Tim Duncan appeared to cap a brilliant fourth-quarter comeback by the Spurs when he hit a fallaway jumper over the outstretched arms of Shaquille O’Neal with four-tenths of a second left to give San Antonio a one-point lead. However, after a series of timeouts, the Lakers’ final prayer was answered when Derek Fisher caught Gary Payton’s inbounds pass, turned in midair and launched a shot that barely beat the final buzzer.
The ball hit nothing but the net, giving the Lakers an improbable 74-73 win and sending the heartbroken Spurs back to Staples Center with their backs against the wall.
“One lucky shot deserves another,” O’Neal said.
San Antonio didn’t see it quite the same way.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich filed a protest with the league, claiming the clock began too late on Fisher’s desperation shot. But the NBA shot that notion down, leaving the defending NBA champions with no choice but to win their way back home for a potential decisive game.
“That’s the cruelest loss I’ve ever been involved with,” Popovich said.
The Spurs, who won the 1999 NBA title before watching the Lakers reel off three straight championships, got a favorable bounce in Game 5 of last year’s second-round series with Los Angeles. With the game on the line, Robert Horry, currently with San Antonio, launched a potential winning 3-pointer in the final seconds for Los Angeles, but the ball bounded out, giving the Spurs a 3-2 edge in a series they would close out at Staples Center in Game 6.
“Unfortunate, incredible,” Duncan said after the Spurs’ crushing loss Thursday. “There’s not much you can say about it.”
Though they’ve won three straight from the Spurs, the Lakers are wary of San Antonio’s resiliency.
“I don’t know how they are going to react. They are a tough team,” Payton said. “But they have to come to our place now, down 3-2, and they never had to do that before.”
The Spurs did not face elimination in any series during their previous two runs to the title.
“I think the slogan is you win or go home,” Duncan said. “We want to win and come home (for Game 7).”
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Spurs - Duncan, 23.0 ppg and 10.1 rpg; Parker, 7.6 apg. Lakers - Bryant, 23.8 ppg and 6.1 apg; O’Neal, 12.4 rpg.
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.