Commentary

Spurs feel the pain of losing 20-point lead, golden opportunity

Originally Published: May 22, 2008
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

SpursAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesSpurs coach Gregg Popovich talks to a team that squandered a 65-45 lead in Game 1.

LOS ANGELES -- The "plane debacle," as Gregg Popovich calls it, must now be followed by the plain truth.

This is the first time this week that Popovich and his San Antonio Spurs know real misery.

How miserable?

For the first time in these playoffs, San Antonio has an inkling of how Phoenix felt after the very first game of these playoffs.

There was no singular dagger plunged in late Wednesday by Kobe Bryant or anyone else in gold and purple that can compare to the triple hit by Tim Duncan in Round 1 to emotionally slay the Suns.

This, rather, was a form of gradual torture inflicted by Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers' increasingly sticky defense, making the travel trouble that San Antonio had getting to the Western Conference finals seem almost pleasurable by comparison … and instantly leading you to wonder about the Spurs' capacity to rebound.

Folding NBA-sized limbs into airplane seats -- even cushy airplane seats -- and spending the night on the grounded team jet is a full-fledged traumatic episode in this pampered universe. Yet none of that comes anywhere close to the sort of discomfort San Antonio found when it finally made it to the Staples Center, where the Spurs crashed from 20 points up with more than half of the third quarter gone to a crushing 89-85 defeat in Game 1.

"Hurts like hell," Popovich admitted.

That's the same guy known for aggressively downplaying his team's grandest successes and revealing little to nothing between grunts when the Spurs lose. On this night, though, not even Pop would try to soften the blow absorbed by his defending champs, who had responded to the disorienting journey that followed their Game 7 triumph Monday in New Orleans with almost 30 minutes of near-flawless basketball.

Which only wound up making the ending considerably more painful.

[+] EnlargeTony Parker
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesTony Parker (18 points, 10 rebounds) found himself on the floor in Game 1.

From a lead of 65-45 with about 5½ minutes to go in the third quarter -- with Duncan outscoring Bryant by a tidy count of 20-4 at that point -- San Antonio uncharacteristically couldn't finish. The Spurs couldn't hold a lead that realistically should have been big enough to withstand L.A.'s inevitable run and the Spurs' equally expected fourth-quarter fatigue, all of which adds up to the larger failure to capitalize on Bryant's way-too-passive start.

Popovich saw it as Bryant "doing a trust-his-teammates thing" in a first half in which No. 24 scored just two points and took only three shots. You could only assume that Kobe was trying to get every other Laker into the series as quickly as possible. But Bryant actually angered his own coach with the unselfishness, prompting Phil Jackson to tell TNT's Craig Sager during Jackson's mandatory in-game interview that "Kobe went on vacation ... to the Bermuda Triangle instead of the sideline triangle."

Which, again, only saddled San Antonio with more regret.

"We got all pumped up," Spurs swingman Manu Ginobili said, "and we just stopped playing."

Ginobili continued: "Kobe got a little hot, but that's kind of normal. We just stopped moving the ball offensively, we got stagnant, stopped making shots and [it was] over. … I don't know if it was our legs or our heads, but they got on a run and it was hard to stop them."

That's right. Don't discount the Lakers' role in the comeback, because they dug out of the 20-point hole with ferocity, fronted by the frightening ease with which Bryant's offense awakened (23 points in the final 17-plus minutes) but fueled just as much by some Spurs-like D.

Ignoring the ineffectiveness of starters Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher, L.A. ramped up the aggressiveness and physicality anyway, answering some skepticism coming in regarding its ability to contain Ginobili and Tony Parker in the same game.

Europe's answer to the pest-like qualities of Bruce Bowen -- Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic -- supplied some effective harassment of Ginobili (just 10 points on 3-for-13 shooting). Multiple bodies flying at Parker on the pick-and-roll eventually got the ball out of Parker's hands after the reigning NBA Finals MVP scored 12 of his 18 points before the break.

A late flurry of random double-teams on Duncan did the rest of the damage to the Spurs' flow. The ball movement and penetration stopped, replacing San Antonio's first-half crispness -- just two turnovers and 50 percent shooting from the floor -- with a deflating stream of ill-conceived (or, worse, rushed) jumpers.

"I know I missed three or four shots in a row and two free throws through that stretch and really gave them energy in this building," Duncan said after his 30 points, 18 rebounds and four blocks were somehow wasted, as well.

"Obviously we were up 20 and we hoped to put that one away and put them on their heels, but we didn't. So we have to recover. We have to come out and try to get that one."

Indeed. As if there wasn't sufficient anticipation for a Game 2 matching the two franchises which have claimed seven of the league's past nine championships, awaiting the Spurs' response should give this showdown an extra jolt, with San Antonio closer to a repeat title -- even at 1-0 down in the conference finals -- than it's ever been.

The Suns admittedly never recovered from the Spurs' double-overtime uppercut in Game 1.

The Spurs?

Let's not forget who we're dealing with here.

They were and remain the only team that was involved in the greatest conference race in regular-season history and that can win it all. They also just rallied from series deficits of 2-0 and 3-2 for the first time in franchise history … and looked so happy for 2½ quarters to be done chasing Chris Paul around.

Yet even Pop -- when he wasn't shooting down the suggestion that the Spurs were wrecked by the plane debacle after eliminating New Orleans -- did a little wondering aloud about what we'll see Friday night.

Which is something else we're not accustomed to hearing from him.

"Well, sure," Popovich said when someone asked if he's already fretting about Wednesday night's emotional impact. "Coaches worry about everything.

"We've got to dig down deep, forget about this and figure out a way to come back just as aggressively as we did the first three quarters. … That will hang in there a while, so it will take some good mental toughness to let that go.

"We'll make sure we get that done."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics