Lakers fail to close opener

Los Angeles can't hold five-point lead in 4th as Spurs get 88-78 victory

Champions win 16th straight

Duncan scores 30 points as turnovers doom L.A.

May 03, 2004|By Tim Brown | Tim Brown,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SAN ANTONIO - When the fourth quarter turned loud and tense last night, the Los Angeles Lakers lost.

When victory and a piece of the San Antonio Spurs' self-assurance required composure, the Lakers put their Big Four on the floor and then went to pieces, playing as playoff trainees as their lead fell away.

In the first game of the NBA Western Conference semifinals, the defending-champion Spurs ran down the playoff-built Lakers in the final quarter and won, 88-78, at SBC Center.

Game 2 is Wednesday night. The Lakers returned to Los Angeles on the fumes of a poorly spent fourth quarter, in which they relinquished a five-point lead and had nearly as many turnovers (10) as points (13).

It was in that quarter that Tim Duncan scored 12 of his 30 points and the Spurs made 11 of 21 shots, while the Lakers staggered through a run in which they were outscored 19-2 and that included six consecutive turnovers, three by a jumpy Kobe Bryant.

For a day, it appeared the Spurs stood where the Lakers had once figured to be, riding playoff assuredness and a 16-game winning streak, five of the wins since the regular season ended, and a defense that starts everything. Conversely, the Lakers of Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone, Gary Payton and Bryant have yet to find something permanent to cling to.

They tried to find O'Neal, tried to establish something the Spurs might not handle, and the basketball bounced away, over and over, leading to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili running free down the floor. The Spurs had pressed early and returned to it rigorously late, and the Lakers dragged.

"[Bryant] got tired and missed some open shots, but that's not the story of the game," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "The story of the game is our attempts to get the ball into Shaq, which caused turnovers in the fourth quarter.

"I think the fatigue caught up to us at some point. We had guys who wouldn't normally turn over the ball in a situation like that, making passes that were out of character. That changed the course of the game from a tight game to a 10-point lead. But, by and large, we were the victim of our own inability to execute."

While they mourned the turnovers - 22 for the game - and their inability to make jump shots - Malone and Payton were a combined 4-for-18 - the Lakers had a seven-point lead late in the third quarter and a five-point lead early in the fourth. They had defended Duncan and Parker reasonably well, and Bryant had carried the offense.

Then, at the very place in which the Lakers would establish their victory or lose their hold on it, the Spurs rushed back. Bryant scored 31 points, but ran off with the ball in the second half, when he took 17 shots and no one else took more than five. O'Neal scored 19 points but missed 10 of 13 free throws.

"They were more aggressive," Malone said. "They were more physical and they pushed us around a little. You can't allow that to happen in the playoffs. This time of year I don't think any coach should have to give this team a pep talk. When you get a five-point lead, you have to knock them out. It's not enough to just be sure and execute and simply hold on. This time of year you either win or go home, so we better win."

The Lakers actually out-rebounded the Spurs and blocked six shots - O'Neal had five - and still they said they had been beaten physically, by the Spurs' screen-and-rolls and a dogged defense.

"I know how this series is going to go," O'Neal said. "It's going to be like that. It's going to be very physical, clawing and scratching."

They scored 32 points in a third quarter that seemed to solve the Spurs' defense. Bryant had 12 of them and Devean George, starting again for Rick Fox at small forward, had eight. It was the worst defensive quarter of the postseason for the Spurs.

"Kobe got hot so we just tried to hang in there and get the quarter over," Parker said. "In the fourth quarter, we played better defense and they started to miss shots."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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