Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images
LOS ANGELES -- In the end, youth trumped experience ... and Kobe Bryant conquered all.
That's the Western Conference finals broken down to the essential compounds. The Lakers had two of the three most important elements in their favor against the San Antonio Spurs.
For all of his wondrous abilities, Bryant by his lonesome isn't enough. He knows that now. In Game 5 and throughout this series it was the younger, deeper Lakers who prevailed, who had the energy to overcome big deficits at home and put the ultimate closer in position to finish things off.
L.A. Lakers 4, San Antonio 1
Lakers advance to NBA Finals
Boston 3, Detroit 2
Game 6: Fri., 8:30 ET, at DET
It had the effect of making Bryant look young again, pasting the same giddy smile he had on his face when he made his first trip to the NBA Finals eight years ago. After the power struggles with Shaquille O'Neal, failing to advance past the first playoff round in his first three years as the main man, his trade demands from last year and what coach Phil Jackson described as a "bewildering two weeks or so in the preseason, where things were tenuous, at best, as an organization," Bryant seemed refreshed.
"That has to be a very special feeling for him to be back here and get to the finals and have exactly what he had hoped to happen happen," Jackson said.
His team, his way, in the only team colors he's ever worn.
Bryant and Jackson know better than to get overly excited by this step. Bryant even left his Western Conference champions cap behind on the interview podium, while younger players proudly wore theirs.
The delirious crowd at Staples Center was treated to a blending of Lakers success past and present on the court following the 100-92 victory, as Jerry West presented the gathered team with the trophy for the Western Conference winners.
Bryant was giddy standing next to the man who pulled the trade to get him to the Lakers.
"I remember like it was yesterday, Bryant said. "I was 17, in his Lexus, riding around, scared to talk because I'm sitting next to Mr. Clutch."
Eventually, Bryant felt comfortable enough to have a lengthy conversation, and he asked West about playing in crunch time.
"He said something to me that was really interesting," Bryant said. "He said when the game is on the line, he feels like the shots are actually easier to make. It was just interesting to hear him say that and try to understand how he views those clutch situations and how I can learn from that and try to be that way."
Thursday you saw the finished product, the game's new sensei, the first choice in the league you'd want with the ball in the fourth quarter.
Just as they did in the first game, the Lakers erased a large deficit (17 points this time) and won the nitty-gritty battle. When it mattered most, with only two points separating the teams and just over 3½ minutes to play, Bryant went on a tear, scoring eight of the game's next 11 points, in just about every way possible: jump shots, a layup and a free throw. He tacked on two more padding free throws in the final 15 seconds to bring him to 39 points for the game.
It was such a killer performance that when Bryant passed by Tony Parker in the hallway afterward he almost felt the need to apologize to the Spurs' point guard.
"That demon came out," Bryant said. "What do you want me to do?"
"He was unbelievable again," San Antonio's Manu Ginobili said. "When his team couldn't score, he just took over."
It wouldn't have mattered if the young Lakers had not developed enough to give Jackson a range of options -- and this was even before the Pau Gasol trade. After the Lakers did not cave to Bryant's trade demands, this was the most significant development of the Lakers' season. It's what allowed them to think in championship terms in the first place.
After a lackluster L.A. first quarter of only 15 points on 29 percent shooting, Jackson stuck with his season-long pattern of sending out the second unit to start the second quarter. After dropping behind by 17 points, the crew of Luke Walton, Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Ronny Turiaf and starter Lamar Odom got the deficit down to 11, and the Lakers finished the quarter with a flurry to trail by only six at halftime. Jackson credited that stretch with saving the game.
"The building was dead tonight, they were on a roll, they had all the momentum," Farmar said. "That's our job, to come in and turn it around."
"We've developed a confidence about us, especially as a unit," Walton said. "We were down early on. In the first quarter, we kind of looked at each other and said, 'When we go in, we've got to pick this energy up.'"
The Spurs had an energy deficit, one they never did overcome after spending a night on an airplane following their Game 7 victory in New Orleans.
"As I look back, it was a tough beginning of the series for us," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "Considering the seven games, a quick turnaround, losing that game in Game 1. I think that took a bit of a mental toll. It was a tough beginning. We just faced a better team."
Give the Spurs credit for not griping about the non-call in Game 4 that was so egregious the league office admitted it was bad. (If anything, they had a right to still be harping on a Game 1 critical rebound that went out of bounds off Tim Duncan when it appeared Duncan had been fouled.)
Popovich, in a way, seemed relieved that it was over. He and the Spurs have had four chances to defend their championship during his run, and never have worn the crown well.
"We don't have to practice tomorrow, do we?" he said as he walked off the interview podium. "We can sleep late, drink wine. No practice, no shootaround."
Bryant, meanwhile, was off to catch a showing of "Sex and the City" at a movie theater that was being held open for him.
"When you win in L.A.," he said, "life is good."
For the first time since 1998, neither Tim Duncan nor Shaquille O'Neal will be seen on the NBA Finals stage.
For the fourth time since 1999, San Antonio has tried and failed to follow up a championship with a championship repeat.
Yet you're assuming a lot, and unwisely so, if you're thinking that Thursday's Game 5 elimination in Los Angeles was the last we'll see of the Spurs as a Western Conference force.
While it's undeniably true that the Lakers should be even better next season with a healthy Andrew Bynum -- and that New Orleans, Utah and Portland have everyone out West worried -- San Antonio is certainly best positioned of the recently fallen giants (Spurs, Suns and Mavericks) to maintain its position among the elite in the face of this ongoing revolution.
For one simple reason.
As Spurs owner Peter Holt said earlier in this series: "Our core is not changing. I believe that we can [reload again] and we don't want our core guys to go anywhere."
Aggressively sprucing up what's around those four could easily keep the Spurs on L.A.'s level.
It's no news flash that the Spurs need an infusion of youth and athleticism. Duncan, for starters, could use some springier legs up there with him on the front line to help at both ends. A wing threat who can score would help even more to reduce the regular-season load on the three mainstays and take some playoff pressure off Ginobili, who had his best season ever at 30 ... but whose battered body doesn't always recover between games as fast as it used to.
Even Parker, babe of the group at 26, joked recently that "you can throw me in there" with the other old guys after so many years of long playoff runs and summertime duty with the French national team.
Yet it's also fair to say -- even acknowledging the Spurs' history of finding the right pieces to replenish around Duncan after playoff disappointments -- that this might be San Antonio's biggest reloading challenge.
The increasing depth in the West is one factor. Another is the fear that Duncan and Ginobili might have peaked, which makes fortifying the Spurs' supporting cast even more crucial. This series really drove home the reality that relying on their star trio is no longer enough to get out of the West ... especially when the playoffs start with a first-round foe like Phoenix.
It's too soon to know how the Spurs will address their scoring shortcomings on the wing, which have been an area of concern dating to the near-acquisition of J.R. Smith at the 2006 trading deadline. Yet there's hope within the organization that frontcourt help can actually come from within. Even after the financially motivated sell-off of Luis Scola to Houston last summer, San Antonio still holds the draft rights to three quality big men in their 20s.
Brazil's Tiago Splitter said this week that he's committed to staying in Spain next season with perennial Euroleague power Tau Ceramica, but the Spurs are quietly optimistic that they'll be able to lure Splitter to the States for the 2009-10 season. In the meantime, D-League sensation Ian Mahinmi will get the first chance in October to earn significant minutes next to Duncan after an intense apprenticeship this season shuttling back and forth between San Antonio and the Austin Toros.
Another less-discussed asset, either to strengthen the current frontcourt rotation or perhaps help the Spurs fill a need elsewhere via trade, is Lithuania's Robertas Javtokas, who was drafted by San Antonio with the 56th overall pick in 2001 and just had his breakout season in Europe with Dynamo Moscow.
Popovich, not surprisingly, gave few hints when asked about the tweaks in store.
Pop said: "So when you lose, you've got to make changes, right? If we [won it all], we wouldn't have to do a damn thing. ... I think that's too superficial of an analysis of any team at the end of the season. Every team makes some kind of changes. So we'll look at our team and see what we need to do. We've made some changes every year, whether we won or we lost."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
LOS ANGELES -- After a game in which officiating was finally a nonissue, there was one bit of ammunition for those who believe the Lakers have been handed a free ticket to the NBA Finals. In the middle of the celebration was former Lakers executive Jerry West, most recently of the Memphis Grizzlies. The cynical NBA fan -- and doesn't that apply to most of them -- believe West worked behind the scenes to orchestrate the trade between his two former teams that brought Pau Gasol to the Lakers in exchange for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Marc Gasol and draft picks.
Trade might not be the right word.
"A donation, or something like that," Kobe Bryant suggested.
Actually, West was on hand as part of the new NBA tradition of having a legendary former NBA player award the conference championship trophy. (Last year, for example, Bill Russell gave the trophy to the Cleveland Cavaliers.) But West wanted to make sure the attention went to his replacement in L.A., the often-beleaguered Mitch Kupchak. Kupchak might have lost out to Danny Ainge for the Executive of the Year Award ... but how about the NBA bring back the Comeback Player of the Year and give it to him?
A year ago, Bryant referred to the front office as "a mess" and seethed about the direction Kupchak had taken the team. Fans called local talk radio and referred to the GM as Mitch Cupcake.
And now, with a roster built mostly of the same players Kupchak had drafted and signed, the Lakers took out the defending champions. Did it in a way that came from the Spurs' model, actually: surrounding one superstar with a bunch of late-first-round and second-round draft picks. The likes of Luke Walton, Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic and Ronny Turiaf.
West was choking up with emotion as he handed over the trophy. Bryant reached up and patted him on the chest as Derek Fisher grabbed Kupchak's shoulders from behind and rocked him back and forth. The crowd cheered. And later, even Bryant had to give his praise: "He's done a great job."
Kobe Bryant, Lakers guard: Saving his best for last, the league MVP poured in 17 of his game-high 39 points (16-for-30 from the field) in the fourth quarter to put the finishing touches on a series-clinching rally by L.A.
San Antonio Spurs: Sure, Tony Parker scored 23 and Tim Duncan had a triple-double, but how do you explain the defending champions losing a 17-point advantage in a win-or-go-home game? Also, the league announced this week that it will start cracking down on flopping. Talk about kicking a team when it's down.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"No disrespect to Kyra Sedgwick, but that damn boy Kobe Bryant is The Closer."
-- Analyst Charles Barkley, using the name of TNT's popular television drama to describe Bryant's ability to make critical plays
Gregg Popovich will probably never expound on the Spurs' supposed inability to win it all in an even year. He says he refuses to even utter the word repeat around his team.
The focus of Pop's thoughts in the immediate aftermath of San Antonio's Game 5 elimination Thursday night centered on the fact that his team realized so many of its pre-series goals against the Lakers ... and still went out in five games.
Said Popovich: "We told our team at the beginning that we wanted to stop their transition offense, which we did. We wanted to hold them in the low 90s, which we did [for the most part]. We wanted to cut their free throws as a team and Kobe's [individually], which we did drastically.
"If we really thought we would be able to do all that, I would think the series would be a win for us. So the fact that we didn't come through offensively is a disappointment, but part of that is a credit to the Lakers."
The Spurs' offensive shortcomings were capsulated by the huge leads they blew on the road to bookend the series. In Game 1, San Antonio let a 20-point lead slip in the final quarter and a half. In Game 5, San Antonio seized an early 17-point lead and gradually faded again, even though its much-maligned bench outscored L.A.'s 31-23.
A nightmare run for the hobbled Manu Ginobili ended with the NBA's newly minted Sixth Man Award winner managing just nine points, meaning that he failed to score in double figures for the fourth time in five games. Ginobili finally conceded afterward that his bad ankle never improved after San Antonio's seven-game struggle in the second round with New Orleans, admitting that his Game 3 breakout was due more to the fact that he sank five 3-pointers in the first half than any restoration of his mobility and explosion.
Tim Duncan, meanwhile, exited the season with a triple-double (19 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists) that proved thoroughly unfulfilling. The Spurs, as seen all series, simply didn't have enough shot-makers with Ginobili ailing or enough consistent flow to discourage L.A.'s successful defensive swarms on their big man. The Lakers sealed their 100-92 clincher by hounding Duncan into 7-for-19 shooting, which TD made worse by missing five of his 10 free throws.
It remains to be seen if Game 5 was the finale in Spurs colors for Michael Finley (13 points), Kurt Thomas (11 points and seven boards in his longest stint of the series) and/or Brent Barry (11 points). Yet there seems to be little doubt that seven-ringed playoff legend Robert Horry has played his last game for the Spurs, since Horry didn't get a single second of playing time in Game 5 after failing to register a single bucket in the first four games.
Duncan nonetheless came away from the defeat insisting that he did "love what we had this year" roster-wise. This was the first time in the Spurs' four repeat bids in the Duncan Era that they made it out of the second round and extended the season into the conference finals.
The problem? Unhappy endings against the Lakers are getting repetitive for the Spurs, who have now been eliminated by L.A. four times since Duncan's first championship in 1999: 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2008.
San Antonio's successes in the rivalry were in 1999 (sweeping a second-round series to close out the old Great Western Forum) and in 2003 (halting the Lakers' run of three successive championships in another second-round matchup).
"I have never mentioned [repeat] one time," Popovich said Thursday during his pregame media address. "Maybe that's my problem, I don't know. Maybe I should have a big sign that says [repeat] every year.
"We've always thought that, you know, if we won a championship, that's great. If it so happened we won a championship in a year where we had won one previously, then it would be called a repeat. But other than that, it doesn't mean much to me."
Said Duncan: "We haven't repeated for whatever reason. Luckily enough we have won four times and had the opportunity to repeat. Obviously we'll have to add some pieces to our team and [make] a couple tweaks here and there."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
"Oh, thank you, that's a great help," Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich deadpanned Thursday evening, before Game 5. "I'll send some flowers to the NBA."
The news prompted Barry to throw out a "Back to the Future" reference.
"That's awesome," Barry said, "because Doc Brown is waiting for me outside, and we're going to get in the DeLorean and fire up the flux capacitor and we're going to go back and shoot a couple of free throws."
-- J.A. Adande
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
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