Originally created 05/12/02

Lakers' late-game bursts the difference in Spurs series



SAN ANTONIO -- The Los Angeles Lakers want to suggest something new for Sunday's Game 4 with the San Antonio Spurs.

Don't count the first 40 minutes or so. Call it warmup, an exhibition, whatever. Then put eight minutes on the clock and let them go at it.

That's been the pattern for the first three games of the second-round playoff series. Twice, the two-time defending NBA champions have prevailed down the stretch, and the other time they fell just short.

The latest sprint came Friday night, when Kobe Bryant scored four baskets in the final five minutes to transform a back-and-forth contest to a 99-89 Lakers victory and a 2-1 advantage in the best-of-seven series. Game 4 will be played Sunday in San Antonio.

"If you want to be champion, you have to respond to the challenge, and we did that," Bryant said Saturday. He finished with 31 points.

And now the Lakers are going for a two-game home sweep of the Spurs at the Alamodome and a chance to wrap up the series in the Staples Center on Tuesday.

"We know next time they are going to come out of the gates strong," Lakers forward Robert Horry said. "They don't want to go down 3-1, but we want to put them down 3-1."

Added teammate Rick Fox, "A big mistake a lot of teams make is going on the road hoping to get a split. We wanted to come in here, play hard and hopefully get every game here."

And that hard play has not only been on offense. The Lakers have clamped down on the Spurs, especially Tim Duncan, to deny scoring opportunities late in the game.

While Bryant was closing the deal for Los Angeles in Game 3, San Antonio missed shots on four straight possessions and suddenly found itself down by double digits.

"Anybody with a brain knows they're a great defensive team," San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said.

Duncan, the league's Most Valuable Player in 2001-02, is averaging 27 points in the series, but he's only 28-for-75 (37 percent) from the floor. During the regular season, he shot better than 50 percent.

"They made shots, we didn't," said Duncan, who had 28 points for the Spurs on Friday. "Their defense worked, ours didn't. ... We're right there in the last three or four minutes. We make three or four mistakes, and they're right there to capitalize."

Duncan isn't the only Spurs player struggling on offense. The team is shooting 39 percent overall, and even lower in the fourth quarter.

Notable is guard Steve Smith, who led the NBA by hitting 47 percent of his 3-pointers, but is shooting only 27 percent behind the line (9-for-33) in the postseason.

Popovich has an answer for his players as they try to find their range.

"I tell them to keep firing," he said. "It can't go in if you don't shoot it."

Shaquille O'Neal, who had 22 points and 15 rebounds on Friday, continues to be plagued by nagging injuries. Bryant says O'Neal is most bothered by a cut finger on his shooting hand, but not to the point of distraction.

"He knows how big the next game is," Bryant said. "He'll be ready to play."

Some Spurs players say they've noticed that O'Neal is not at full strength, but that he remains a dominant player nonetheless.

"He's not as fluid as he used to be," Smith said, "but 80 percent Shaq is still pretty good."