SAN ANTONIO -- At some stage, the Los Angeles Lakers might actually let the world see some sweat. Or at least some fret.
Just don't expect any tangible evidence of panic from the thrice-defending champions until they're down by, say, 20 points in the fourth quarter ... with a minute to go ... in a Game 7 on someone else's floor.
Until then, the Lakers continue to meet defeat with their trademark shrug, no matter how uninspired they just looked. It's an approach that, on this lost Sunday, bothered even Phil Jackson, the famed Smug Master.
Jackson struggled to conceal his disgust here after the San Antonio Spurs, doing almost anything they wanted in the third quarter, held on with no great distress for a 98-89 victory. The win gave the Spurs a regular-season sweep of L.A., prompting one ahead-of-himself fan on the baseline to wave a long broom in celebration, but what bothered the coach most is that his team's sense of urgency has again been misplaced.
"I honestly don't think it bothers this team at all," Jackson said of San Antonio's 4-0 record against the Lakers this season, albeit with Shaquille O'Neal healthy for only two of the meetings. "They feel totally confident they can beat the Spurs whenever they put their mind to it."
From his nine-ring perspective, Jackson added: "I think it's unrealistic. As a coach I'm not happy about it, but they're very confident about what they do."
The statements that came next, though, made it clear he wasn't exaggerating. Brian Shaw, normally a voice of reason in the champs' locker room, downplayed L.A's 0-for-4 by pointing out that the Spurs held a similar 3-1 seasonal edge going into last spring's second round, which saw the Lakers advance in a 4-1 stroll. "Why shouldn't we feel the same way?" Shaw asked.
Kobe Bryant, despite needing 30 shots for 31 points, was equally defiant. "If you're looking for shaken-up confidence," Bryant said, "you've come to the wrong place."
Fact is, Jackson was just as dismissive Thursday night after the Lakers lost in Sacramento, insisting that he has "absolutely no fear of this team at all." So it was a little odd to hear him make the complaint. Jackson didn't sound any more impressed by the new-look Spurs before Sunday's tipoff, when asked to assess the threat San Antonio now poses with players who can attack the rim and score (Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Stephen Jackson) besides Tim Duncan.
"There are two words there -- different and better," Phil Jackson said, repeating a reporter's words. "(The Spurs are) different. I don't know if they're better."
Then they played the game, which dropped the Lakers to seventh in the West by a full game behind Utah and seemed to alter Jackson's view. Even allowing for the fact that A) it's only one game and that B) it tipped off at 10 a.m. for a groggy California team, the performance did raise questions. Especially after Jackson took the rare step at Saturday's practice of telling his guys that it's time to beat the Spurs and "let them know again that we're here."
Advice unheeded. The Lakers instead wasted everything that did unfold in their favor, and there was plenty.
David Robinson, thought to be a critical element to San Antonio's ability to deal with O'Neal, looked beyond creaky in his second game back from a stint on the injured list and sat out the game's final 19 minutes. Malik Rose picked up his third foul less than 90 seconds into the second quarter and had to sit out the rest of the half, after he had sparked a 20-4 run that put the hosts in the lead. In the most unexpected bonuses, Mark Madsen seemed to legitimately hassle Duncan for two quarters, and Parker missed eight of his first nine shots.
After intermission, mind you, none of it mattered. As soon as Rose re-entered for Robinson, San Antonio zoomed away and O'Neal -- after a 20-point, 10-rebound half -- began to find foul trouble and then faded. Bryant, meanwhile, was accused by Jackson of "cruising" for the second straight game. Unimpressed by Bryant's 25 points in the final two quarters, Jackson pointed to Kobe's 2-for-12 shooting in the first half.
There was also a glaring stat in the box score Jackson didn't mention: Bryant's zero assists in 40 minutes.
Safe to say Kobe's MVP momentum is pretty much gonzo. Now it's time to see how much steam the Lakers can gather in their final 12 games, with two to go in this killer stretch of nine of 10 on the road.
Shaq is indeed looking increasingly more spry, and there will be more days off and more time for forethought and preparation in the playoffs, so that fan with the broom was definitely premature. The Lakers will be much tougher to beat in the postseason, and the Spurs are still advised -- should these two meet in Round 1 as expected -- to take a 2-0 lead if they hope to see the second round. If the Lakers get a 1-1 split at SBC Center, you'll be hearing lots about how L.A. still holds a vice-like mental edge over Team Duncan. You can be sure that plenty of folks will pick the Lakers to win that series going in regardless.
Yet you also wonder, as unreasonably cocky as the Lakers seem at 39-30, if they really realize exactly what sits ahead. Perhaps Jackson should embrace Sunday's bravado/denial, because it might have to help carry L.A. through. The Spurs or the Kings -- or the Mavericks, if the Lakers keep slipping -- await in Round 1. The Lakers will also almost certainly have to play the other two West powers just to get back to the Finals. They'll also have to do it without home-court advantage in any round, in three straight seven-game matchups.
Most worrisome of all, for 69 games now, these Lakers simply haven't looked like cocky champs on the road or at the defensive end or anywhere else but the postgame press briefings. Defense and road dominance, as much as Shaq and Kobe, are what made them the LAKERS.
What Jackson is basically saying is that he'd like to see those Lakers at least a few times before the playoffs start. Or else it might really be panic time.