Don't group this loss with others
The Lakers lost to the league-leading Spurs, but this time the effort was a worthy one
LOS ANGELES -- We feel the need to group things in our society, from keeping the socks with the other socks in the underwear drawer to separating who we follow into similarly sorted columns in our TweetDeck.
By that logic, the Los Angeles Lakers' 89-88 loss at the buzzer to the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday will be put in the context of the purple and gold's continued struggles against the league's elite teams, but it shouldn't be.
Antonio McDyess' tip-in as time expired dropped the Lakers' record to 1-6 against the five teams ahead of them in the overall standings -- San Antonio, Boston, Miami, Dallas and Chicago.
Even though a loss is a loss, Thursday's effort shouldn't be grouped with those other shameful results, because the Lakers played like the Lakers.
They played like the team that won back-to-back championships and the team that a Western Conference general manager told me this week was still the best team in the West despite the fact that they trail the Spurs by a handful of games.
Amazingly, Gregg Popovich himself, San Antonio's soldier on the sidelines, agreed with the unnamed GM before the game, saying, "I think they're the best, I really do."
It might have taken until Game No. 50 on the schedule for the Lakers to look like the best against one of the league's upper-echelon teams, but now they have 32 games to replicate it and prove Pop's point by developing a rhythm before the playoffs.
Was it anything like the Boston game? The Celtics went up by nine at the start of the fourth quarter and the Lakers couldn't rally, eventually falling by 14. Against San Antonio, they found themselves down by eight with 8:04 remaining and methodically chipped away at the lead until Pau Gasol made two free throws to put them back up by one with 22.7 seconds left.
"We didn't give them as many open looks," said Kobe Bryant, comparing LA's loss to the West's top-seeded team with the defeat to the East's top-seeded team. "Tonight we did a much better job contesting opportunities."
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Said Lakers coach Phil Jackson: "We got some stops, we made some plays, we got some run-outs. Those things are very important for a basketball team to do that. Defensively, we responded. That was important."
Ron Artest shot 1-for-10 from the field against the Celtics and reports swirled in the days following that Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak was considering trade opportunities and Artest was privately pining for a move. Against the Spurs, Artest looked every bit as effective as he did during the playoff run last season, racking up 13 points on 6-for-11 shooting with five assists and two steals, while holding newly minted All-Star Manu Ginobili to just 14 points on 5-for-17 shooting.
It wasn't just that Artest played well, but Jackson revealed that the forward "got a lot of support from his teammates," which shows that this Lakers team has a tendency to bind together rather than fall apart in times of trouble.
"I thought he did a great job on Ginobili," Jackson said. "I don't know even what Ginobili scored, but I thought [Artest] was the one that was creating stops."
Was it anything like the first time the Lakers played San Antonio? That game the Lakers lost by 15. Bryant went 8-for-27 from the field, missing 13 straight shots at one point, and had only one assist. On Thursday, Bryant took nine fewer shots and had nine more assists, finishing the game with 16 points and 10 assists.
Was it anything like the loss in Dallas? The Mavericks beat the Lakers by nine, scoring 109 points while shooting a blistering 55 percent from the field. The Spurs shot just 41.2 percent and didn't break 90.
"It was a good game," Jackson said as his first answer to a question after Thursday's game. "Defensively, we played well."
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Was it anything like the Christmas Day debacle against Miami? The Lakers didn't look like they could be bothered to break a sweat in that one. What about the loss in Chicago? In that game, the Lakers missed crucial free throws and 3-pointers in the final minute. Against San Antonio, they made them.
The Lakers were juggling a lot coming into the game, from suppressing Bryant's Black Mamba mode to growing Gasol's Black Swan persona to getting Artest back on track and even offering a lift for Lamar Odom -- the most happy-go-lucky Laker -- on a night he was bummed out about being snubbed for the All-Star Game.
And they did it against the Spurs and their league-leading 41-8 record.
So you could group it as another game the Lakers lost when entering the fourth quarter with a deficit (they're 1-8 in that scenario) or another game the Spurs won when entering the fourth with a lead (they're 34-1 in that scenario), but it was a game that deserved to be distinguished on its own.
It was a loss, sure, but not as bad as the rest.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.