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Sunday, May 9, 2004
Updated: May 11, 1:15 PM ET
Lakers can play ... when they want to

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- The Spurs finally know what it feels like to lose a game again. The Lakers finally know how it feels to play to their potential in a playoff game.

Kobe Bryant will be flying back-and-forth between L.A. and Colorado again this week. Tim Duncan will be trying Tuesday night to get some distance from his string of five straight very quiet quarters.

The Lakers don't deny that even they weren't sure which one of their personalities would surface on Mother's Day. The Spurs concede that they were probably due for a let-up, or a blowout, or both.

One more thing, amid all those storylines:

Shaquille O'Neal can still play, people.

That, if anything, is what allows the Lakers to believe they can still etch themselves into the NBA Encyclopedia as a for-the-ages conglomeration. If this is the Shaquille O'Neal we'll be seeing for the rest of this series, after a Houston series that had people around the league wondering if his explosiveness was really evaporating, then this really is a series. In that scenario, this was merely the start of a recovery that will establish L.A. as just the eighth team in league history to overturn a 2-0 playoff deficit.

Game 3 made you say it loudly: Shaq Is Back. It started Wednesday night in Game 2, when the Lakers suddenly remembered how to get the ball inside and O'Neal rumbled for 32 points and 15 boards. On Sunday, Shaq sank more than half of his free throws (6 of 11) and was pretty much flawless everywhere else, with 28 points on 11-for-13 shooting ... and 15 more rebounds ... and eight blocks.

After two games like that from the forgotten Diesel, and after the Lakers successfully pressured both Duncan and Tony Parker into a nightmare afternoon, they have indeed restored some hope.

Of course ...

It's never that simple with the Lakers anymore. Impressive as it was to see O'Neal skidding onto the floor in the first quarter, chasing after a loose ball, it only takes a Game 4 defeat Tuesday to put L.A. back on the cusp of a flop for the ages.

Ever since that third successive championship, intensity never seems to last long with these guys. Worse yet: After the Lakers won Game 3 so easily, who would be surprised if they switched off again and relaxed?

Not Bryant, apparently.

"I think everybody came here to see what Laker team was going to show up," Bryant admitted, "how hard we were going to play."

Not Karl Malone, either.

Malone is the Laker with the greatest grasp of T-E-A-M, but he admitted even before this victory that he has stopped trying to understand why these four future Hall of Famers can't seem to function properly without the aid of some desperation.

"If you figure out the answer, I'll give you a million bucks," Malone says. "Cash."

That's a noble offer from a Mailman who took a pay cut of nearly $18 million going into this season. But you can understand his frustration. When the Lakers are committed to playing defense from the opening tip, sharing the ball and -- get this -- actually running the offense as the coach draws it up, they can be the Lakers everyone envisioned.

"Those guys are talented," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich reminds. "They're pretty good."

Said Malone: "When we execute, it looks very nice."

Assuming it lasts.

L.A.'s defense on Duncan was actually quite good before Game 3. The Lakers held him scoreless in the fourth quarter of Game 2, and then -- committed to clogging the lane no matter how many open threes they conceded -- L.A. was aggressive enough to fluster Parker and usher Duncan to 22 more scoreless minutes before he finally dropped in a jump hook with 75 seconds left in the first half.

Trouble is, the Lakers didn't get to that level of aggression and commitment until Phil Jackson made it clear at Saturday's practice that this group has a future best measured in hours as opposed to days. It's up to Jackson to generate that kind of hunger again, because his players have proven that they can't be trusted when it's left up to them to summon some community passion. When he leaves it up to the players, you can go quarters without seeing the Lakers form one discernible triangle on offense.

You can pretty much bank on a focused Bryant on Tuesday night. Those flights to and from Eagle always seem to make him play better somehow. Nevertheless, if you can permit us to question the Zen Master, it wasn't the wisest strategy to scrawl "11 More Wins" on the locker-room greaseboard after Sunday's 105-81 rout.

It's true, yes, that L.A. will win another championship if it can win 11 more playoff games.

Yet it's probably a better bet with this group to point out -- in BIG LETTERS -- that elimination continues to sit just two more losses away.

Or that the Spurs have only lost one game now since March 23, and that Duncan and Parker will have ample motivation after these showings to keep that loss from becoming a losing streak.

Or that only seven NBA teams, in 173 previous playoff seven-game matchups, have rallied from 2-0 down.

"Yes," Malone said with a laugh. "We realize that."

No, really.

"If we don't come back and play well Tuesday," Gary Payton added, "I think something's wrong."

With Shaq deep into renaissance mode ... yeah. Very wrong.

It wouldn't be a new storyline, though. Not with these guys.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.