by Scott Pieper
Spurs 89 – Lakers 88
It was starting to seem like one of those kind of nights. Having played 15 seasons in the League, Antonio McDyess had seen the signs before: shots that rattle halfway down the chute before popping out; rebounds that careen directly into the opponent's hands; arguments that fall on deaf ears. Coming fresh off a disappointing loss in Portland, the lights of Staples Center were shining bright, the Lakers had just surged into the lead, and it looked like another letdown was in the works.
Then, after a night of tough calls and bad breaks, the veteran journeyman gathered his legs, leapt, and took his vindication with one soft, subtle tap.
“It bounced off, kind of like slow motion, and I was able to get my hand up,” said McDyess, who finished with eight points and eight rebounds.
“I was in the right place at the right time, and it bounced right to me,” McDyess said. “I haven’t had too many (buzzer-beaters). I can probably count them on one hand, but this is a big one.”
By the end, all that was left standing was Derek Fisher, two-time defending champion and villain of Spurs fans everywhere, vainly twirling his finger in the air and waiting for a phantom call that wouldn't come. The fifth loss in the Lakers' last nine games set them back to 7½ games behind the Spurs for the Western conference lead.
"Both teams played hard," said Popovich, who remained modest in his assessment of both teams' efforts. "We shot the last shot, I guess. Had there been one more shot, maybe they would've won."
"Tony [Parker] was great. He kept us together like he has all year long, and just did a fantastic job."
Tony Parker led the Spurs with 21 points and 2 assists, including a dominant third quarter stretch in which he scored 14. Richard Jefferson had his fourth consecutive solid outing with 18 points, and hit half of his 8 three-point attempts. Manu Ginobili had a rough night with his shot (14 points on 5/17 FGA), but distributed 8 assists and gathered 5 rebounds, and led the team in plus-minus (+10).
The Lakers, meanwhile, are now 1-6 against the five teams that have better records than themselves, but they still have enough championship swagger for Pop and several other Spurs to label them "the best team in the league."
Considering their three consecutive trips to the Finals and two consecutive titles, a statement like that is just as much posturing as it is flattery, but it's still an advantage that the Lakers own. Teams fear them, and they are better for it.
They played tough in this game, too, and seemingly did what was necessary to put themselves in a winning position. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum dominated the post to combine for 29 points and 17 rebounds while holding Tim Duncan to a paltry 8 and 8. Lamar Odom tossed in 16 points off the bench, and Ron Artest seemed engaged after recent trade rumors. Kobe Bryant, like Ginobili, struggled shooting the ball, but was running the offense so efficiently that he nearly put together a quiet triple-double (9 rebounds, 10 assists). For a few brief minutes at the end of the fourth quarter, the Lakers suddenly became the Lakers again.
Yet here they were, making all the right moves in their home arena in the waning moments, and they still ended up walking off the court empty-handed and frustrated; a tip and a tenth-of-a-second too short.
"It's a tough game that we wanted. Anytime you lose a game like this it hurts a little bit." said Lamar Odom, who admitted to getting caught watching the ball and not being in position to box out McDyess on the final play.
Kobe Bryant downplayed the toll the losses have taken in the Lakers' locker room after the game.
“Mental toll? Not much,” Bryant said. “I think it builds mental toughness.”
Still, one has to wonder how many times the Lakers can be silenced in statement games before their collective psyche begins to crack. February games don't decide the playoffs, and one loss alone won't rob a championship team of its aura. But moments like Thursday night, with Gasol slouched over in defeat and Fisher begging for a bailout?
These are the nagging reminders that the playing field has become even, and those seeds of doubt are the bane of championship swagger.