Having watched NBA playoff games for many, many years I can easily interpret what happened in the first three games of the Western Conference Finals.
The San Antonio Spurs flew to L.A. from New Orleans, where they won a seventh game in the prior round. The Lakers were rested and ready.
Being a franchise that has won three championships in the last seven years, the Spurs called upon their experience and tried to seize upon an opportunity. The assumption would be they would be tired and unable to make the opening game competitive. They’d try to shock the Lakers while they still had something left.
They almost pulled it off. They led in the third quarter, 65-45. At that juncture the Spurs were demonstrating the heart of a champion.
But they couldn’t seal the deal. The Lakers caught up, and after the game was tied with 45 seconds to play it was the Lakers who prevailed by four points.
Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich lamented that, “We missed a great opportunity.”
That quote tells everything. The veteran coach knows you don’t get many chances to essentially steal a playoff game on the road. It wasn’t as if the Spurs could shrug it off and win the next one.
Game Two was a predictable Laker rout. Now playing a third game of a difficult trip, the Spurs were tied at 37 but couldn’t keep up the rest of the way.
Before Game Three my instinct told me this would be the Spurs’ night. They were behind, two games to none and desperate. Having been around coaches such as Bill Sharman and Pat Riley in the years I traveled with the Lakers, I learned that desperate teams often win. They play harder, particularly on defense. The Spurs were home and refreshed. They were not going to be denied.
And then we came to Game Four on Tuesday night, May 27, and I had no idea who was going to win. Because the travel was finally equal. Neither team had an advantage in fatigue.
My only thought was that this would be the best game of the first four. It most likely would be close right to the end, and perhaps one dramatic play would decide it.
Did that happen? Yes and no.
You could say a referee’s call — or non-call — decided it. No foul was called on the final play even though Derek Fisher clearly fouled Brent Barry. When Barry faked a shot Fisher bumped into him. That’s a foul.
The Spurs deserved free throws that could have changed the outcome.
But there’s another way to look at it. The Spurs had plenty of chances to take command, but they never did. And this is something else I’ve learned over the years — don’t focus too much on one play. Evaluate the game overall.
Doing that, I conclude the Lakers’ youth and speed decided this game. Although there was only a two-point difference at the end, the Lakers got to most loose balls and got offensive rebounds by outscrapping the Spurs. They did what a superior team does — go into a hostile building and apply enough pressure to beat the home team and the crowd.
The Lakers came home for Thursday’s Game Five in a great position with a 3-1 lead. But Kobe Bryant sounded a warning.
“We have to play,” he said. “They’re not going to give it to us.”
He’s right. At this level the basketball is first-rate, and don’t count anyone out until they, indeed, are finished.
Now Laker fans await that finish. If it happens, we can all get ready for another battle against Boston or Detroit — and either of these teams will have the first two games at home — and four of the seven.Win or lose, the excitement is back for Laker followers. And this is a lot more interesting than the last three years, isn’t it?