Lakers, Spurs ready to rumble in West

Evenly matched series pits past 2 NBA champs

Pro Basketball

May 19, 2001|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

On a basketball junkie's wish list, right next to world peace and a cure for male pattern baldness, was the hope that the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers would meet for the NBA's Western Conference championship.

The first two items may be elusive, but starting tonight, the Spurs and Lakers, the past two NBA champions and two of the best teams in the league this season, are poised to wage one of the fiercest and most evenly matched conference finals since the Chicago-Detroit rumbles of the late 1980s.

The stage is set, with marquee names like Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and David Robinson, to deliver one of the most anticipated showdowns in years. Six of the potential seven games will air on NBC.

"This is the series everybody wanted," Duncan said. "I don't know if we wanted it."

The two teams have circled each other warily for some time, waiting for this moment.

San Antonio bounded to the league's best record (58-24), with Duncan and Robinson manning the interior, with possibly the deepest roster in the NBA and the league's best defense.

The Spurs, who polished off Minnesota and Dallas in four and five games, respectively, have been so deep and resilient that they have shrugged off the loss of shooting guard Derek Anderson to a shoulder separation in Game 1 of the Mavericks series. Anderson could be available later in the series, though it's not likely.

San Antonio also has survived a midseason lineup shift, as Danny Ferry and Terry Porter inherited starting slots from Sean Elliott and Avery Johnson, each of whom started for the 1999 title team and were starters for most of the year until they were hurt.

Meanwhile, the Lakers (56-26) haven't lost a game in six weeks, and with 15 straight wins overall, have survived their own Hollywood-style soap opera, what with the early season "Clash of the Titanic Egos" of O'Neal and Bryant.

Just as they did during last season's run to the title, the pair apparently elected to put their differences about who is "The Man" aside in their quest to repeat. O'Neal and Bryant have taken turns throughout the first two rounds being "The Man," with O'Neal scoring 40 points and pulling down 20 rebounds in the first two Sacramento games, while Bryant burned the Kings for 36 and 48 points, respectively, in the final two games.

Besides their talent, the two teams will bring to the series lots of cross-talk, borne of a healthy and mutual dislike.

Most of the talk has come from the Lakers' locker room, where O'Neal, who went to high school in San Antonio, first accused the Spurs last spring of being a WNBA team, then derided Robinson's "goody two-shoes image" in his recent autobiography.

Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson has dismissed the Spurs' title, pointedly noting that it came during a lockout-shortened season and should be marked in the record books with an asterisk. Porter fired back that Jackson, who has won seven titles with players like O'Neal, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen -- all on the NBA's 50 Greatest Players list -- would earn respect when he had coached a team like Vancouver to a title.

Jackson ratcheted up the stakes this week, charging that the Spurs consistently play a zone defense, apparently to plant a seed in the minds of game officials."

[TV analyst] Danny Ainge said it the other night on TNT: San Antonio won't have to change their defense next year," Jackson said earlier this week. "They're playing a zone all the time, anyway. They play a 1-2-2 zone. They've gotten away with it all year, the officials never call it and they're in great shape. Next year, they'll be able to step right in and play the same way."

If the Spurs are riled, they aren't showing it.

"There won't be any war of words. I don't waste my time on it," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "I guess you've got to retaliate to have a war, and I don't see any reason to retaliate because I don't feel attack. Words don't mean a whole lot."

Said Duncan: "That's how they roll, that's what they do. That's great for them. If it [talking] works for them, they keep on doing it, I guess. It doesn't work for us. We just go out and play."

Playoff matchup

Western Conference final

No. 1 San Antonio vs. No. 2 L.A. Lakers

Playoff path: The Spurs beat Minnesota, 3-1, in the opening round and defeated Dallas, 4-1, in the conference semifinals. The Lakers swept Portland in three games and Sacramento in four.

Season series: The Spurs and Lakers split four games, each winning once on the road. The Lakers are 4-2 lifetime in the playoffs against the Spurs and 2-0 against San Antonio in conference finals. The Spurs, however, swept Los Angeles in the 1999 Western semifinals on the way to the title.

Spurs outlook: Antonio Daniels is averaging 15.5 points and is shooting 60 percent from the floor (33 percent from three-point range) since taking over for Derek Anderson, who separated his right shoulder in Game 1 of the Dallas series. ... San Antonio is 22-4 in the past 26 playoff games that Tim Duncan has played in.

Lakers outlook: Los Angeles has won 15 straight games. ... Shaquille O'Neal has double doubles in his past 13 playoff games, dating to last season. ... Kobe Bryant averaged 37.7 points in three games against the Spurs this season. ... Including the playoffs, the Lakers are 10-1 when Bryant or O'Neal scores 40 points or more in a game.

Keys to victory: The Spurs must double-team O' Neal with a variety of long-armed defenders, including Danny Ferry, Sean Elliott and Malik Rose. Conversely, O'Neal's ability to successfully pass out of the double team and find Bryant, Derek Fisher or Rick Fox for open jumpers is crucial.

Bottom line: This has the potential to be one of the greatest series in NBA playoff history. The teams are so evenly matched that the difference may be that the Spurs, who had the best home-court record in the league this year, have home-court advantage. San Antonio in seven. - Milton Kent

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