- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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SAN ANTONIO -- You've heard it a zillion times, so it's not exactly Zen Master material to announce that it's not easy to beat the Lakers four times in a seven-game series.
You know what else?
It's not the most up-to-date material, either.
You'll sound a lot more current if you cite this theory about the Lakers: It's going to be awfully tough for them to score 90 points against the stingy Spurs.
Four times in a seven-game series.
The first step, of course, is getting to 80, and the Lakers couldn't even manage that in the opener of a series that renewed what now ranks as the NBA's fiercest rivalry. L.A. came away instead with an 88-78 defeat Sunday, squandering a glorious opportunity to seize a significant early advantage in this series despite holding a 69-64 edge with 11 minutes to play.
Winning one of the first two games in San Antonio, against a Spurs team that hasn't tasted defeat since March 23, is an absolute must -- critical for the Lakers if they hope to dent their rival's swelling confidence. The Lakers instead unraveled in a manner that helped support Gregg Popovich's contention that the Spurs' defense -- even without David Robinson -- is as good as it ever was.
If Pop is right, and not just trying to stroke his own reconstructed team, San Antonio will get to four first. Evaluating the first dose of evidence suggests that while the new Lakers have the personnel to run the ball as much as Tony Parker likes to push it, only the Spurs appear capable of taking the fast break away.
They made the Lakers run their half-court offense in the fourth quarter and, as we've warned for weeks, the outcome wasn't pretty. Once San Antonio got past its own third-quarter jitters and free-throw embarrassments, L.A.'s Four Cornerstones looked like strangers. They looked every bit like a group that has played just 50 games together, none of them as intense as this. A run of nine straight crunch-time possessions resulted in six turnovers, one airballed 3-pointer by Kobe Bryant and forced threes from Bryant and Derek Fisher.
"They're very consistent," Shaquille O'Neal observed. "They do the same thing every time."
Which is, well, guard.
They guard you. They force turnovers. They get back in transition. They rush Karl Malone and Gary Payton just enough that the ring-hungry vets finished a combined 4-for-18 from the field. The Spurs contest every shot because they have the defensive depth to throw a Manu Ginobili at Bryant when Bruce Bowen picks up two early fouls. They still have the front-line depth, sans the Admiral, to keep Tim Duncan away from Shaq for long stretches, even without giving a single minute of playing to Spurs vet Malik Rose. They still save Duncan for the end to jostle with Shaq down low, at which point Malone stops getting the open looks that, in this case, he'd been missing anyway.
"A sh---- job on my part," said Malone, blaming himself for starting L.A.'s late hailstorm of gaffes.
Said Derek Fisher, insisting he was the Laker who triggered the unraveling: "It seemed like we were not ready for that type of pressure and activity with the hands. They definitely put us in positions where we have to execute to win."
Execution is not a Laker specialty, as it was in the three-peat days. The respectful tone with which they now speak of the Spurs -- a tone reserved for no other Lakers opponent -- suggests they wouldn't deny it, either.
L.A.'s execution will simply have to get crisper, in a hurry, if it plans to survive the fifth playoff showdown between these teams in the past six years. Because you can pretty much guarantee that the Spurs are going to get better.
Sunday's hosts looked pretty skittish themselves in the third quarter ... and downright disgraceful at the line. Duncan hit as many bank shots as free throws, contributing five of the misses in San Antonio's 1-for-9 first half from the stripe. And offense was scarce from anyone not named Duncan or Parker; Devin Brown might have been as good a No. 3 option as the Spurs had. Hedo Turkoglu and playoff master Robert Horry, in case you didn't have time to check the box, totaled zero points in their 42 shared minutes.
But you can be pretty certain the Spurs won't look that shaky in what now looms as a huge Game 2 for the Lakers on Wednesday.
You can also take one guess to figure out how the Spurs managed a come-from-behind triumph when they looked so punchless for three-fourths of Game 1.
"Their defense," Bryant volunteered.
Yup. Phil Jackson says it's the "same defense" the Lakers saw in this round last May, with no discernible dropoff despite Admiral Dave's new status as an SBC Center spectator. Jackson went so far as to suggest that the Spurs actually miss Robinson more on offense than defense, remembering that Popovich wouldn't hesitate to run the occasional play for ol' No. 50, lobs especially. Rasho Nesterovic isn't quite there yet.
In the search for positives, Jackson found a few. It has to be something of a boost that Malone and Fisher, to name two crunch-timers, were ready to blame themselves for L.A.'s capitulation. It would've been better to hear the same from Payton, after maybe the worst playoff game of his life. But the Spurs' free-throw frailties -- even worse than L.A.'s -- should be another source of optimism.
The Lakers, though, will need more of the ball-sharing that opened things up in the third, because things have changed in this league. On this Sunday, they changed in a matter of hours.
In the morning, you could hear Shaq answering a question from Ahmad Rashad on SportsCenter about the old theory that it's tough to beat the Lakers four times in seven games.
"I think that's very correct," Shaq said.
In the early evening, after San Antonio hounded L.A. into 37.7 percent shooting and 11 turnovers alone in the final period, Shaq shared a second opinion.
"It's going to be a defensive series," he said.
From a Lakers perspective, that's not what you wanted to hear.
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