- Sam Smith
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LOS ANGELES -- The San Antonio Spurs weren't supposed to be here, putting the latest NBA dynasty, the three-time NBA champion Lakers, in double break point -- with two chances to win one game to prevent the Lakers from joining the Boston Celtics as the only teams in NBA history to win more than three straight championships.
The Spurs weren't supposed to be the ones telling the mighty (arrogant?) champions the ball is in their court and it's the Lakers who have to do something with it. Even the Spurs didn't think they would be in this position.
It's why Spurs coach Gregg Popovich delivered perhaps the defining motivational speech of the series after the Spurs' disappointing Game 4 loss in which they blew a 16-point first-half lead and still led with about 90 seconds remaining. Popovich told his players, shaken if not so stirred, to go back to the first day of training camp.
Think about it. A second-year point guard still 20 years old. Paired in the backcourt with a guy waived by three NBA teams and who'd played in the CBA and in Venezuela when the Lakers were starting their championship run.
Here's my favorite Stephen Jackson story. This was back about midseason and Jason Kidd was carrying the Nets around the top of the East. Never much of a shooter or one who even wanted to shoot, Kidd saw that the trade of Keith Van Horn for Dikembe Mutombo had not worked out, so he took it upon himself to score. They said he couldn't shoot, but he was among the league-leading guards in shooting percentage and scoring at a career-high clip. Jackson was as well, doubling his NBA career average.
I was trying to make a case for Kidd for MVP with one of the Spurs, who listened patiently. I talked about Kidd's shooting, defense and transition play and how he'd changed his game to help his team.
"Well," the Spurs guy said, "that's true. But Stephen Jackson is our second-best player. And the Nets cut him."
The Spurs didn't even want him to start. They were hoping Manu Ginobili would take the job, but his ankle injury from the World Championships hadn't healed. And he was a rookie, anyway.
That was to be the backcourt, a 20-year-old Frenchman and a rookie Argentinean.
The starting small forward would be Bruce Bowen. He admired Jackson's stable career. He was cut by three teams and also played in the CBA as well as France after not being drafted. The Bulls cut him during a season when they won 17 games. His career NBA scoring average was 5.4 and he shot under 40 percent from the field and under 60 percent at the free-throw line.
The center would be David Robinson, a true gentleman and star of the game, but now as agile as petrified wood. The Spurs hoped he'd play 50 games with his inevitable physical deterioration, and it was Robinson's last season anyway.
It would be a time to say goodbye and gleefully dream of the future.
Here the Spurs were with a reasonably competitive team, but with Robinson retiring and veteran Steve Smith's contract expiring, they'd be tens of millions of dollars under the salary cap. It was unheard of for a competitive team to be in such of a position. The Spurs could chase the top free agents in the summer of 2003 and sign a star, perhaps two, to play alongside Duncan.
Come 2003-04, watch out.
But what do you know, the pieces fit. Robinson dragged his way through the season and missed "only" 25 games. Bowen became a defensive star and Parker was an offensive sensation. Oh, yes, there was Duncan, who was magnificent again. He knew he had to be patient. He saw what was coming, what the team was building, though not quite yet.
So here the Spurs were, hanging their heads after being shocked by their Game 4 loss and 2-2 series tie with the Lakers.
"If someone told you," Popovich told them, "you're going to have 60 wins this year and you're going to have Game 5 at home, and it's going to be 2-2 against L.A., would you take it or leave it?"
Heads bobbed up and down. Eyes widened. That's right! This was the Lakers, and the Spurs were the better team.
Even with the Game 4 defeat, the Spurs had shot better, from the field and from the 3-point line. They had more assists, more steals. They were more aggressive and livelier in transition. They'd scored more points. Their bench dominated. They were deeper.
It was the big problem. Stars shine brightest in the NBA. Stars get the foul calls. It's not fair. Neither is life. So in Game 4 when everyone in San Antonio was yelling about all those foul calls against the Spurs, it went according to the star system. Bryant and O'Neal combined for 40 free throws. Duncan got 20. The Spurs have no other star.
They hope Parker will become one, perhaps Ginobili. But that's a ways off. It's why the Kidd question keeps coming up. Should they use all their free-agent money this summer to try to attract the Nets star? He is the only true star on the market -- the Pacers' Jermaine O'Neal perhaps, but not of the magnitude of Kidd. Like Phil Jackson once explained in the playoffs: The pretty girl gets kissed. The stars get the benefit of the doubt. If the Spurs were to compete with the Lakers, maybe they'd need that second star to balance the scales. Then they'd put their role players against the Lakers'.
The Spurs could still choose that route, but Parker snapped out of his funk in Tuesday's Game 5 win in San Antonio with 21 points and zero turnovers. There would be no star treatment this season, though. The Lakers have the Really Big Two, and even with that second straight MVP award, Duncan is just one guy.
But here the Spurs were after Game 4, tied at two games with two of the next three at home.
"You've done a hell of a job," Popovich told the team. "You've had a great year. It's a great opportunity, young as we are to do something really cool. So let's just go do it. Enjoy what you accomplished but understand, it's not what you really want. And we're going to see if the Lakers want another championship more than we want to try and take it away from them."
Popovich knows the Spurs shouldn't be here, now ahead 3-2 in the conference semifinals. He has shown the patience of a grandfather when he'd like to sometimes show the attitude of a drill sergeant. Parker, Jackson and Ginobili do some stupid things. Fairly often.
"We're going to have those nights where nobody knows where the hell the ball's going to go," Popovich laughed. "Or nobody knows who's going to make what cut, if they even heard what I said in a timeout, if they know what city they're in."
Everyone understood this is how it would be when you nurse along NBA babies. So they've blown leads. They were up by 17 at halftime in Game 2 and then up by seven at the end of the third quarter. The Lakers have outscored the Spurs in every fourth quarter of the series but one (San Antonio tied L.A. in Game 4).
After Robert Horry's shot rattled in and out at the end of Game 5 to enable the Spurs to escape with a two-point win, the first thing Popovich said after the game was: "If we ever figure out how to stop somebody and we ever figure out how to score against anybody in the fourth quarter, we're going to be dangerous."
It's the curse of youth the Spurs have had to live with. Conventional wisdom suggests it doesn't get you anywhere in the playoffs.
But here the Spurs are, scoring more, running more and shooting better with even a little luck on their side. Horry's game-ending 3-pointers have gone in against everyone else but aren't dropping now.
So why not the Spurs? And why not now?
Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
7dEthan Sherwood Strauss