L.A.'s margin for error goes from slim to none

Editor's note: New season, new Stein Line. Now, Marc Stein's NBA report can be found every weekday during the playoffs.

SAN ANTONIO -- The Lakers don't lose Game 1s, especially on the road. Running out of small forwards, just seven games into the playoffs, is another new one.

"We haven't been in this situation too many times," said Lakers veteran Derek Fisher, in a near-empty locker room, combing his memory for a comparable predicament.

In this run of championships?

Try never.

Which is why Fisher, after a pause, ultimately concluded: "I think we all understand it's going to come the hard way."

Never have the three-ringed Lakers flirted so closely with their trademark opening salvo -- winning on someone else's floor to demoralize the hopeful challenger -- only to limp away looking shaky. The best the champs could say late Monday is that the San Antonio Spurs looked plenty uneasy in victory themselves, on a night when L.A. finished without Shaquille O'Neal, who fouled out, and Devean George, who was carried off.

The Spurs barely held on for an 87-82 triumph, despite missing more free throws (14) than the Lakers attempted (12) overall. San Antonio was forced to scrape even though O'Neal fouled out with 3:26 to play, after an ill-timed span of three fouls in 78 seconds, and after George joined Rick Fox on the Lakers' list of unavailables with a severely sprained left ankle.

So the Lakers, being the Lakers, clutched to those positives, suggesting that there's little chance they'll have so many holes in Wednesday's Game 2 at SBC Center, a building where they still haven't won. Chances are L.A.'s right, too. It's tough to envision Kobe Bryant needing 38 more shots to score 37 points, or 39.5-percent shooting for the team, or a 35-12 disparity at the free-throw line ... or a half-court heave by Kevin Willis swishing through at the halftime buzzer.

Then again ...

The Lakers, still coming to grips with the fact they won't have Fox for many months, don't know when, or if, George will return this series. For all their playoff experience, the Lakers don't exactly know how this will go from here.

Brian Shaw, in one scenario, becomes a starter, with Kobe Bryant shifting to small forward. Another possibility, albeit more of a long shot, calls for Lakers coach Phil Jackson to suddenly start presenting major playoff minutes to rookie Kareem Rush.

Either way, brace yourself for some interesting lineups from the Zen Master. For example, here's the fivesome he sent out after George crumpled along the baseline early in Monday's fourth quarter: Bryant, O'Neal, Mark Madsen, Fisher and Shaw.

Moments before George's fall, a scoreboard graphic flashed these gruesome bench-scoring numbers: Spurs 18, Lakers 0. Shaw chipped in an unexpected nine rebounds, but San Antonio reserves wound up outscoring their L.A. counterparts by 28-4.

"I said last week that people didn't realize how much we'd miss Rick Fox," Fisher said. "He'd be the guy who would really make (Bruce) Bowen and (Manu) Ginobili work hard for their points. ... But we'll just keep putting Band Aids on."

Said Shaw: "It happens. We've been relatively fortunate (health-wise) the last few years. ... (But) it's way too early to feel like it's slipping away."

Bryant, typically, was even more defiant, saying he refuses to say, "Poor Lakers, we lost another player." And, fact is, L.A. indeed had a chance to tie the game in the final minute after a couple Kobe 3-pointers, even with O'Neal reduced to the same spectator's position he took before the game, when Tim Duncan received the league's MVP trophy from commissioner David Stern.

Problem is, the Spurs can also play worlds better. That's even though they've already established themselves as the (much) deeper team, while quietly savoring a double-double from a pretty spry David Robinson (14 points, 11 rebounds) and flashing the best of Bowen and Ginobili.

Bowen made Bryant work as much as any defender can and tossed in a couple clutch 3-pointers in the third quarter, after a Kobe streak of three straight jumpers. Ginobili, meanwhile, was simply the Spurs' best player, with three huge triples of his own and four steals. He seemed to be wherever the ball was, which represents another change for the Lakers in this rivalry. With Ginobili, San Antonio can say it has athletes, too. Or did you miss Ginobili wheeling around Madsen for the sort of reverse dunk in traffic normally seen from No. 8?

Of course, as stated, not much was normal on this night. This wasn't like the Lakers going to Minneapolis to torch the Wolves in the series opener, or like the Game 1s they won in Sacramento and San Antonio in the previous two conference finals. It would end up as only the second Game 1 loss, in any building, in Jackson's 14 series coaching L.A., and the latest reminder that the champs' margin for victory has narrowed again.

"Each year the margin has gotten smaller," Fisher said. "I think we understand that."

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