LOS ANGELES – The San Antonio Spurs finally unwrapped Antonio McDyess(notes) from their celebratory embrace long enough to skip off the court. Pau Gasol(notes) hunched over the Los Angeles Lakers' bench for a moment as if he were going to be sick, leaving his teammates to begin their slow shuffle to the locker room. Phil Jackson hadn't even bothered to wait for the referees to replay the final, painful tenth of a second. Who wants to watch another dagger to the gut?
Only Derek Fisher(notes) stayed on the floor, glaring at the refs, twirling his finger above his head. He wanted McDyess' winning tip-in erased, except anyone who had seen the shot knew the obvious: This wasn't goaltending, just another scar on the Lakers' season. The Staples Center emptied some more, and still Fisher stood, twirling his finger. For a rare moment, the champs looked desperate.
The Lakers will board their chartered jet Friday, bound for New Orleans and the start of a seven-game trip that promises to test them some more. They haven't lost the been-here-seen-it-all swagger that has steeled them through two championship runs, but deep down they know something else: As each loss piles up, their peers fear them less.
Too many teams have walked into their arena and pushed them around. The Boston Celtics never considered the Lakers unbeatable, but the champs' aura has also faded out West. The Lakers' inability to surround their big men with consistent shooting has lessened the matchup advantage their length gives them, scouts say. Such is their state that the latest loss was even seen as a small measure of progress in some corners of their locker room.
The Lakers don't do moral victories, and they know as much. They had hoped to use this game against the Spurs to make a stand, just like they had planned to do the same against the Celtics four days earlier and against the Spurs and Miami Heat in December. They've won just once in six games against the five teams with better records than them. The rest of the league has taken notice, even if no one wants to admit it just yet.
"We're a good team," Gregg Popovich said, "but I have no problem saying I think the Lakers are the best team in the West."
Even Jackson had to smile at that. "I'd like to agree," he said, "but our record doesn't support it."
The Spurs now own a 7½-game lead over the Lakers in the conference standings and have won the first two games of their four-game season series. Already, the Lakers have lost one more game at home than they did all last season. Their week began with the Celtics humbling them on national television in a loss that prompted Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak to tell reporters the team might need to make a trade. Within three days, Ron Artest(notes) was trying to quash a report that he wanted out.
Most teams would consider the circus a distraction. The Lakers have another name for it: February.
The Lakers think they're forever immune to strife, and perhaps that will again help them. They've navigated so many storms. What's one more? They're still two weeks from the NBA All-Star break, and even then they might need only the season's final 15 games or so to find their footing. Get Andrew Bynum(notes) in shape, get Matt Barnes(notes) back, and shouldn't they be ready to roll in the playoffs?
Winning consecutive titles has afforded the Lakers the benefit of the doubt, which is why no one is lining up to schedule a seven-game series against them just yet. "They just won two championships," Popovich said. "There's no doubt there's going to be nights where it's just not all there emotionally. … Phil's going to be patient with them and do what he does, and they'll be there come playoff time."
Still, games like Thursday – just like Sunday's dismantling by the Celtics – have a way of chipping at the best of teams. Gasol played aggressively. Artest looked engaged, locking up the Spurs' All-Star guard, Manu Ginobili(notes). Bryant couldn't locate his shot but didn't force it, choosing instead to facilitate the offense. And yet the Spurs somehow found four shots in 22.7 seconds on the game's final possession.
"Too many opportunities," Jackson would later say.
"They got a great bounce," Bryant said.
Best team in the West?
Fisher could only wave his finger.