Lakers look for rebound in rematch with Spurs

Western Conference titans meet in Round 2 this time

Pro Basketball

May 02, 2004|By Tim Brown | Tim Brown,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LOS ANGELES - If it seems the Los Angeles Lakers just left the floor after losing to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals, it is only because some of them kept the strain of the past year to themselves.

It is again May and these are again the Spurs, with a best-of-seven series beginning today in San Antonio.

On the edges, the Lakers are fixed up and the Spurs are redone. But it is again the series of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, of Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. It is again the series that, if expert opinion counts for anything, will produce the eventual NBA champion, for the fifth time in six years. The Lakers won the title the other year, 2000, without having to play the Spurs.

Asked yesterday, on the eve of Game 1, whether it felt as if they'd only just done this, Phil Jackson shook his head.

"No. It's a long year," the Lakers coach said almost wearily. "It's been a long time."

Last May 15, the Lakers left the postseason bound for a rebuild. And, this afternoon, Karl Malone and Gary Payton stand in their starting lineup.

It wouldn't seem to Jackson, who could be coaching against his last opponent, that the Lakers just finished that series against the Spurs. It wouldn't seem like it to Bryant. O'Neal fought for a contract extension and, so far, lost, and Payton demanded playing time and, so far, lost. Fisher, a critical member on three championship teams and a starter on two, lost his job to Payton.

"Too much has happened," Fisher said.

So little of it easy too. They looked good in the preseason photographs, standing next to each other with smiles nearly as broad as their shoulders. They won 18 of their first 21 games, especially convincing considering O'Neal and Bryant had renewed their feud in the hours before the season opener and everybody ducked for cover.

"It's been too much of a year - everything we've got going, personnel changes, Kobe - to really feel like last year's playoffs were a week ago. ... That was that year, this is this year," Fisher said. "I think that plays to our advantage. We don't have to concern ourselves with the way that ended last year and we have to resurrect the demons and do all this different stuff to cure our mistakes from last year.

"This is a totally [laugh] new year. New teams. They made about as many changes as we did. So, the four or five core guys for both teams that have been there remember last year and the years before that. Still, there are a lot of key guys that have no clue about Spurs-Lakers rivalries and the things that have happened in the past."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

NBA playoff matchup

Second round, Western Conference

No. 2 Los Angeles Lakers (56-26) vs. No. 3 San Antonio (57-25)

Season series: Los Angeles won three of four. (San Antonio will have home-court advantage by virtue of a better regular-season record.)

How they got here: Los Angeles beat Houston, 4-1, in the opening round. San Antonio swept Memphis, 4-0, in the first round.

Lakers outlook: Kobe Bryant had 31 points and 10 assists in the clinching game over Houston after a day in court in Colorado, and he may have to go back to court during this series. Five Lakers (Rick Fox, thumb; Devean George, calf; Derek Fisher, groin; Slava Medvedenko, Achilles'; Kareem Rush, foot) are reporting some kind of injury. Karl Malone averaged 18 points and 10.4 rebounds during the Houston series, while Shaquille O'Neal averaged just 16 points - five below his regular-season average.

Spurs outlook: San Antonio has won 15 straight games, including a sweep of Memphis. Tim Duncan averaged 24.3 points and 10 rebounds a game against the Grizzlies, but shot just 57 percent from the foul line. After being a non-factor for most of the season, former Laker Robert Horry averaged 11 points and 8.3 rebounds in the Memphis series. Point guard Tony Parker averaged 21 points and 8.5 assists against the Grizzlies.

Prediction: This series pits the past five NBA champions. If Malone and Medvedenko can handle Duncan without O'Neal having to wander over, the Lakers can throw a serious kink into the Spurs' attack. That may be asking too much, especially given that the Spurs got the rest the Lakers so badly needed. It should be a great series, but San Antonio is playing too well. San Antonio in seven.

- Milton Kent

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