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Friday, April 30, 2004
Updated: May 1, 11:15 AM ET
Lakers-Spurs: Tastes great, less filling

By Ric Bucher
ESPN the Magazine

It's an old advertising maxim that only a second-place product mentions its competitor, hoping to give the illusion that it is on equal footing with the industry leader. The top dog avoids any unprompted mention of a challenger to avoid the same illusion.

Which explains why the Lakers are more than happy to talk about the San Antonio Spurs and how much they're looking forward to their upcoming series.

Only, to be clear, this is not Miller pretending to challenge Budweiser with mock presidential debates. This is more like Zima welcoming a taste-off.

At the risk of carrying the analogy too far, don't make too much of Zima (the Lakers) dispatching the Rolling Rock(ets). If anything, that first-round battle exposed why the Lakers shouldn't be taken seriously as a championship contender. Let's count the reasons:

  • Making stops. L.A.'s defense on game-deciding plays was thoroughly unimpressive. In both Games 1 and 4, the Rockets got wide-open looks for game-winning shots -- with an offense that was as dysfunctional and easily disrupted as any in the playoffs. Yes, they came up with a solid third quarter in Game 5, primarily by not allowing Yao Ming more than one dribble in the post before swiping the ball or making him give it up. I would've been more encouraged by the Lakers' improvement if the game had gone to the wire and they'd smothered the Rockets' attack. It's not that the Lakers can't defend, but it's that they can't for more than a finite amount of time per game -- an amount generally expended by the last minute. Even the Kings and Mavericks with their less-than-stellar defenses did better in last-second situations against each other.

    The fact is that, throughout the series, Houston scored on uncontested layups against the Lakers -- including Game 5 -- even though the first Lakers defender was often beaten above the free-throw line. Granted, Rockets guards Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley are quick, but Spurs guards Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are quicker, not to mention far better at actually using a pick to turn the corner or dishing to a rolling big man if their driving lane is cut off.

    Kobe Bryant and Bruce Bowen
    Kobe can't be looking forward to having Bruce Bowen draped all over him.
  • Making peace. Nothing tests a team's solidarity like the threat of elimination. The pressure applied by the Rockets amounted to an old lady waving her cane and yet it prompted Gary Payton to sulk about his dwindling minutes, Shaquille O'Neal to squawk about his dwindling touches and Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant to express their dwindling tolerance for each other. The Spurs, compared to the Rockets, are a circle of bikers with chains and tire irons.

  • Making ready. The Lakers couldn't have found a worse warm-up partner for the Spurs than the Rockets. San Antonio is as consistent and emotionally steady as the Rockets are a roulette wheel. The Spurs can be beaten, but they don't beat themselves, which the Lakers knew the Rockets would if given the chance.

  • Making believe. Kobe has suggested this year's Lakers are better than the team that lost last year to the Spurs because this year they're healthier. In a physical sense, that's debatable since Shaq says his cranky knee feels the same as it did last year, Rick Fox has been a non-factor since his Achilles tendon tear, Slava Medvedenko has a sore Achilles, Derek Fisher is banged-up and Karl Malone is playing on a badly sprained ankle. From a mental standpoint, it's flat-out false. The Lakers were still intimidating last year and still committed to a collective cause -- becoming the first modern-era team to win four championships in a row.

  • Making believe II. I'm not convinced even the Lakers see themselves as championship material. Not with how relieved they appeared to get past the Rockets. Not with Payton already talking about being the ol' Gary next season, Malone telling me it's 50-50 as to whether next season he'll play at all and Shaq boasting about speed-dialing a replacement for Kobe next season. I know they're only answering questions about their futures, but players with their eye solely on the prize usually answer with "We'll see when the time comes" or "Things will take care of themselves" or "That's not my concern right now." Don't confuse this with the Bulls' '98 "last dance" run to a title. That team knew from the start it would be disbanded and used it as a rallying cry. The common enemy was former GM Jerry Krause. The Lakers have none of that. A better comparison is when Charles Barkley joined up with Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon for one more title shot. Drexler had to have mixed feelings trying to win a ring for someone who had joined Jordan in mocking him. Shaq doesn't have a grudge against either GP or Malone, but I certainly haven't seen any sign he's going out of his way to get them their first ring.

    Perhaps the greatest reflection of the Lakers' level of confidence, though, is Jackson. Have you ever known him to be this consistently gracious? He hasn't made a condescending remark about an opponent yet and the last time I can remember that happening was the year he took the Bulls to the playoffs without Jordan. Whatever you may think of him, he only cracks on an opponent when he's certain he won't have to eat his words. My guess is Phil knows what's up, which is why he's piping down.

    Here's another consideration -- if the Lakers did win it all, there might be a push to keep the team together. That has to be a horrible thought for all concerned. So what motivation do they have for making it happen?

    The beer-commercial analogy isn't quite perfect because the Spurs, of course, have acknowledged the Lakers. But they've only done so when prompted by the media and in that we-take-everybody-seriously way that is the Spurs' mantra. But there is one more reason, and it's the same one for the Bud horse not engaging the Miller candidate. It isn't because he's a horse or he's wearing blinders. It's because, from where the horse stands, there's nothing to debate.

    Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine. Also, click here to send Ric a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.