- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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SAN ANTONIO -- The story, according to Robert Horry, is that the first two games of any playoff series are the most important.
I'd like to dispute that and nominate, say, Game 7 near the top of my list, but two realities stop me.
No. 1: Horry is attempting to win his sixth championship ring -- with his third team. Throw in his long resume of clutch shots in the springtime and I have to concede that, at the very least, he deserves the courtesy of having his theory heard.
No. 2: I was at the SBC Center for Games 1 and 2 of Spurs vs. Lakers, which backed his theory nicely.
Games 1 and 2 of Spurs vs. Lakers were absolutely monstrous. San Antonio had opportunities to fold, or to fail, in both because of its free-throw frailties, but the Spurs won each time.
As a result, L.A.'s soap-opera season is finally and firmly on the brink of an early summer, to be followed by the expected scattering of all the big names.
These Lakers have only rarely behaved as a team, in part because of injuries but as much because of their clashing egos and agendas. Now they sit two losses from a second consecutive second-round exit against their fiercest rivals, with skeptical observers like me wondering whether the starry personalities involved really want to keep their season going.
At times Wednesday night, it was truly tough to tell. In a desperate situation, the Lakers came out flat and fell way behind. After two days of talking about how important it was to at least slow Tony Parker, Gary Payton glared at Phil Jackson after Parker blew by, as if it were the coach's fault. Kobe Bryant, meanwhile, turned unusually passive on the same day Shaquille O'Neal's stepfather blasted Kobe in the local paper. There were arguments on the bench between coach and players, and there were eyebrows arched when Jackson pulled Shaq with 58 seconds to play, and the game not all the way over.
As a group L.A. wasted Shaq's rediscovered dominance ... and another strong third quarter ... and Tim Duncan's scoreless fourth quarter. The result was a 10-point defeat.
"We're going to find a way to keep this thing together, in spite of what people feel or what people think," Karl Malone said defiantly. "We still feel like we've got a really good team."
"We're down," Malone went on to admit, "but I don't think we're out.
"Maybe all of us are stubborn. But we'll figure it out. I'm just stubborn enough to think we will."
Of course, it should be noted that Malone wore a pained expression as the words tumbled out, for he surely realizes how much figuring the Lakers have to do. Approaching a week into this series, they aren't getting any closer to stopping Parker. They're likewise struggling to cope with the defensive activity of Bruce Bowen and uberathlete Manu Ginobili.
So much for the notion that the additions of Malone and Payton would make us remember the Showtime days, on the premise that those two would resuscitate the Lakers' running game. San Antonio is running L.A. off the floor yet again, just as it did last spring. The Spurs have claimed a 35-7 edge in fast-break points through two games.
"They are the defending champions," said Lakers guard Derek Fisher. "The guys on their team have won a title. We have guys on this team that have won championships, too, but this particular team has not. Late in games they are just working harder than we are right now."
The latter statement is the real killer because the first part of Fisher's analysis isn't totally accurate. San Antonio, like L.A., has two new starters: Rasho Nesterovic and Hedo Turkoglu. With Malik Rose out of favor and Kevin Willis reserved for emergencies, San Antonio's bench actually has more newcomers than L.A., with Horry and Devin Brown joining Ginobili in the subs' rotation.
If they're working harder, it's because the Spurs are also working together better. Even if you consider Parker a star now -- and it's hard to argue -- this is a true team that values defense and ball-sharing, especially in fourth quarters.
The latest defensive exhibit was Wednesday's final 5:18. L.A. was limited to five throws in that span. No buckets.
"To me, Game 1 and Game 2 are the most important games in the series, especially if you're the home team," Horry explained. "You want to establish a dominance at home. You want to let (the opposition) know, 'We don't plan on losing at home.' "
The Lakers know. They know they've still never won a playoff game at SBC Center. They know that, if they can't make Games 3 and 4 pretty significant, they'll soon be answering nonstop questions about their future plans. For Kobe and Phil and Karl and Gary, Games 1 and 2 were that unpleasant.
After two losses in San Antonio, the Lakers' soap-opera season is firmly on the brink of an early summer.