- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- There was no switch for the hosts to flip, no last resurrection stored in the back room, no stopping the most dominant Tim Duncan ever seen ... or Tony Parker's penetrations ... or Kevin Willis, at 40, rebound-jamming them into extinction.
Most of all, even before Shaquille O'Neal buried his face in a towel, there was no ducking one loud conclusion.
They deserved this.
The Lakers as much as the Spurs.
The winners from San Antonio could not have been more worthy. In the closeout circumstances that were supposed to unnerve them, the Spurs were almost flawless, clinically installing themselves as the first team this century to take a series from the three-time champs. The Spurs' near-perfection, fittingly, was personified by Duncan, who played more aggressively than anyone could remember in a 37-point, 16-rebound detonation that validated his two MVP trophies and hushed conspiracy theorists all over the world.
Yet let it be said that the Lakers, after an undeniably wonderful run, deserved this outcome, too. On Thursday night, they were finally and irretrievably punished for a season of hubris and insufficient depth to combat the strains of ill health. The fire that melted into tears from the eyes of Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher was rarely seen from anyone other than Bryant or Fisher.
The Lakers didn't deny it, either.
"We stumbled, we fell, we had inconsistencies, we lacked some discipline as a basketball club -- and we paid the price for it," coach Phil Jackson said.
Owner Jerry Buss wrongly speculated that his investments in the triangle of Shaq, Phil and Kobe -- while considerable -- were sufficient to produce a fourth successive championship, a feat managed only once before in NBA history. Once Devean George was re-signed with the only significant funds the Lakers had available, Buss prevented general manager Mitch Kupchak from adding a Jim Jackson or two in the $1 million class to give Phil Jackson an extra scoring option.
The Lakers then opened 3-9 without O'Neal, who waited long into the offseason to have toe surgery. They were still mired at 11-19 on Christmas Day, even with Shaq back, because the depth seen when their reign began -- Robert Horry, Fisher and Rick Fox were all reserves on the first title team -- was all gone. And when the run ended, a month earlier than seasons here customarily end, it appeared as though Jackson's third-best player was Slava Medvedenko. The most productive players off the Lakers' bench in Game 6: Medvedenko and Jannero Pargo.
"We were never in the business of offering excuses or saying, 'Gosh, you shouldn't expect us to win this because we're tired and we've done this over and over,' " Fisher said. "That wasn't our mindset. Our thing was: 'Let's just keep plugging away and maybe something will happen for us. Something good will happen. Just keep giving ourselves an opportunity to take another breath, to live another day.' That's what today was about."
It's a mindset that had the Lakers relying on their championship mystique as much as anything. Which used to be enough against the Spurs.
Problem was, San Antonio toughened significantly in a 48-hour span, after nearly blowing a 25-point lead in Game 5 to a Lakers team oozing lethargy. Instead of losing their confidence, as many (like me) expected, the Spurs emerged from that near-catastrophe with an anger, a determination to a) never let it happen again and b) KO the champs.
"This will sound crazy," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said before tipoff, "but I think that was the best medicine we could get. ... I think it put the fear of God in them."
Confirming it, the visitors pulled away after L.A. drew within two points (64-62) halfway through the third quarter. Duncan landed the haymaker by scoring 14 of the Spurs' next 18 points, spilling into a fourth quarter that would soon be filled with highlights like Willis' dunk.
"It was that kind of year," Fisher said. "Nothing really came easy, and I don't know if it should. I don't know if any of our jobs should be easy when you're trying to be the best and be successful over and over again. It shouldn't be easy. It should be that people are willing to step up and take you down and knock you out.
"We've done that to everybody else the last three years, and teams got a chance to flip it on us. As much as we taught other teams about getting to this level, we can learn from what happened today as well and come back even better."
The Lakers have no choice, if they hope to maintain their place among the league's elite.
The Spurs, now favorites to win it all, will only get better in the off-season, when David Robinson retires and management uses the cap space from his departure to pursue a second All-Star to prop between Duncan and Parker.
The Kings and Mavericks, meanwhile, are already far deeper than the Lakers and boast two of the most free-spending ownerships in the league. They will be pursuing upgrades with their $5 million salary-cap exception just as L.A. must now.
And getting one or two of them might be tougher now, since the Lakers themselves are suddenly chasers and not the hunted.
"Last year, when they played the Nets in the Finals, I was rooting for the Lakers because I wanted us to be the team that ended their run," San Antonio's Malik Rose said. "We really believed we were the better team. Not individually -- they've got the two best players on the planet -- but one through 12."
Asked to compare this victory to 1999, when the Spurs won the last official game at the Great Western Forum to complete a sweep of L.A. en route to the last non-Lakers championship, Rose said: "They didn't have three titles back then. So this is a little bit sweeter."
This? Deserved on both sides.
Both the Spurs and Lakers deserved what they got in San Antonio's series-clinching win.