Lakers, Spurs have great opportunity

LOS ANGELES -- The door to the steel cage did not swing all the way open. The first 2-0 deficit in Lakerdom for Phil Jackson was not stretched to Three-Oh.

The opening is widening, though.

In the steel cage known as the Western Conference playoff bracket, which houses the NBA's answer to the Final Four, Friday's ground shift happened in a Sacramento hospital, not at Staples Center. Let's face it: You had a feeling the Lakers were going to win Friday's Game 3, even though that post-game flurry of (really reaching) Devean George/Willis Reed questions was rather unexpected.

What you didn't expect was the bulletin from the north shortly before the L.A.-S.A. tip. An MRI on Chris Webber's left knee revealed a torn meniscus, an injury likely to sideline Webber for the rest of these playoffs. Which raises a number of possibilities.

It could actually lead to the ultimate torture for Webber. Imagine if this galvanizes the Kings to the point that they win a championship without him.

It certainly gives the Dallas Mavericks, who didn't believe they could win a single game against the Kings until Thursday night, a legitimate shot to bounce the Kings in this round.

Out here, meanwhile, it's a development neither team could ignore, even if few participants are willing to talk about the conference finals yet.

"Really -- are you serious?" San Antonio's Malik Rose exclaimed, reacting to the Webber news when he heard it post-game. Rose then caught himself, remembering that the Spurs play a rather large Game 4 here at lunchtime Sunday.

"Being 3-1 would be better than 2-2, you can definitely say that," Rose continued. "But we don't want to say, even at 3-1, that the series is ours. Against these guys, you probably need five wins."

Right now, the Spurs need that Game 4 win to keep the heat on the champs. The Lakers finally found some ball movement in Game 3 -- finally committed to sharing the ball instead of trying to beat the Spurs' athleticism off the dribble -- and thus inched within one victory over heaping all the pressure back on San Antonio. The Spurs' psyche will be placed under considerable scrutiny if L.A. scrambles back to 2-2, even if coach Gregg Popovich claims that "it has nothing to do with psychology -- you (media) guys like to think about those sorts of things."

Of course, if the Spurs can push this thing to 3-1, the door cracks open further. That's because whoever survives this second-rounder becomes the favorite in the conference finals, against either the Webber-less Kings or the still-shaky Mavs.

In short, the prize for winning this series got considerably richer Friday, albeit in sad circumstances for Webber.

For the Lakers, especially, the whole concept of weakened Kings has to be a major source of incentive, something no less valuable this comfortable victory, given the state of their depth. Until someone wins on the road in this series, we won't know if the Lakers are (or aren't) deep enough to see off the Spurs. Of course, even if they are deep enough, the Lakers aren't playing to merely win a second-round series.

No Webber, thusly, dangles more motivation in front of a club perpetually struggling to find some. The Lakers don't care who is or isn't there in these games if they can get to title No. 4 in a row, which has only happened once before in NBA history. Conversely, in Phil Jackson's own words: "Anything less (than a championship) is not a success. It's a failure."

And so they welcome anything that makes the journey easier. They just aren't ready to announce the welcome.

After a couple more performances like Friday's, said Lakers guard Derek Fisher, "then maybe that conversation can come back up."

"We still get frustrated," Fisher added, "that sometimes it takes a game like (Wednesday's rout in San Antonio) to get us to do what (the coaches) always tell us to do."

Said Popovich, now the angry coach in this series: "We played as if we thought somebody was going to give something to us. Like the three-time champions are going to say, 'OK, you win.' "

No they won't. Especially not after what happened to the landscape Friday.

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.