Lakers-Spurs provides suspense, for a change

Editor's note: New season, new Stein Line. Now, Marc Stein's NBA report can be found every weekday during the playoffs.

LOS ANGELES -- The Lakers won one for their sickly coach, which means the rattled Spurs are feeling all the pressure now, especially if the lucky champs keep getting all the calls.

Nah, too easy.

Let's try again. Let's skim past the blaring storylines from this Mother's Day cliche-fest and celebrate the NBA maxim these teams have finally and mercifully unwritten.

You know that well-worn line about how a playoff series doesn't really start until a road team wins a game?

You're invited to save it for another series.

Here at Lakers vs. Spurs -- or Spurs vs. Lakers, if it matters to you -- this is actually a series because the road team hasn't won a game yet. This is the fourth time in the past five seasons that S.A. and L.A. -- or L.A. and S.A., if it matters to you -- have met in the playoffs, and this is the first time it's been a series. The first three times were all routs.

This is the rarefied air of 2-2 territory, serves held on both sides. For us neutrals, this is grand news.

Too many times, Spurs vs. Lakers/Lakers vs. Spurs has been disappointingly lopsided. In 1999, San Antonio swept Round 2 so convincingly -- completing the dusting in the last official game at the Great Western Forum -- that Lakers owner Jerry Buss broke from tradition and spent $30 million on a coach to unify Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. In 2001, a rematch delayed a year by Tim Duncan's knee injury in 2000, it was the Lakers' turn to do the sweeping, in what was supposed to be the Greatest Western Conference Finals Ever. Then last spring, given a third chance to give us a classic, L.A. surrendered only one game, largely because San Antonio kept showing up with only three quarters' worth of offense.

All of them promised so much, and not one was ever a series.


Now you're looking at a series that has serious potential to go The Full Seven, which would only be right, since the survivor is going to be favored to win it all, given that the Kings have lost Chris Webber.

Now you're looking at a series that couldn't be more tied. It's one rout apiece: Spurs in Game 2, Lakers in Game 3. Each team has also been handcuffed by the refs, or so they believe: Lakers in Game 1, when San Antonio held a 35-12 edge in free throws, and Spurs in Game 4, when L.A. shot 45 free throws to S.A.'s 26.

"Yeah, it's frustrating," Spurs forward Malik Rose bellowed after Sunday's proceedings. "It's bull----."

Rose raged after collecting five fouls, to go with Duncan's five and Kevin Willis' four and David Robinson's six. The steady stream of fouls, Rose and other Spurs say, made it impossible to prevent the Lakers' comeback from 16 points down, on an afternoon when Shaquille O'Neal was making his free throws: 17 of 23, 9 of 10 in the fourth quarter.

Of course, that only meant Rose sounded just like the Lakers' $30 million coach sounded last Monday. That's when Phil Jackson's Lakers lost by five points at SBC Center, where Duncan shot more free throws himself (14) than L.A. did as a team.

It wasn't just free throws that evened the series, just as it wasn't simply free throws that gave the Spurs their 1-0 lead. Manu Ginobili's fearlessness and athleticism were the Spurs' Game 1 sparks and the Lakers pulled even with their own show of grit, rallying from the big deficit while the $30 million coach recuperated at home from an operation Saturday to unblock an artery.

The Lakers needed some good fortune as well -- and Brian Shaw duly banked in a miracle three-pointer at the third-quarter buzzer -- but don't discount how well they responded to the poor start and the proddings of fill-in coach Jim Cleamons. Getting zero points from Robert Horry and only nine from the bench, L.A. had to have Shaq's free throws and Kobe Bryant's 35 points and a bonus 17 from Derek Fisher.

"That's the heart of a champion," Bryant said. "We don't budge, we all know that. We don't go anywhere. ... We're going to find a way to win. We just refuse to lose. Period."

In games they have to win, yeah. The Lakers can still make that claim. They came home trailing 2-nil, absolutely had to tie it up and came through, all while resurrecting the recently injured Devean George.

Yet even the Lakers have to sense that these Spurs are unlikely to cave meekly in response. Even after Stephen Jackson admitted in the losing locker room Sunday that Game 4 had been "a must-win for us also."

Duncan found his free-throw stroke in this defeat, sinking 16-for-20 and finishing with 36 points in the first sign that he intends to punish the Lakers' single coverage. The Spurs are also still deeper and healthier than they were the past couple springs. If they lose now, from 2-0 ahead, they won't be able to use injuries as a disclaimer, as in 2001 (Derek Anderson) and '02 (Robinson).

Phil Jackson is expected to be back for Game 5 somehow, even if you struggle to see how after such a serious procedure -- "Don't worry about him," Cleamons said -- and the Lakers' four-peat bid is likewise proving stubborn. The Spurs, though, have their own sentimental reasons to keep playing, with Robinson in his farewell season. They also have an unblemished home record in their new building to protect, with L.A. still 0-4 at the SBC.

"I think they're confident they can compete against us much better than the last couple years," Fisher said. "They have better balance; it's not just all on Tim. I don't know if (the Lakers) have a psychological advantage, but definitely our experience in these games, it's there. You can't denounce that fact."

Said Parker: "Our goal was to split and we didn't make it. But we can't get too down on ourselves."

Parker's right. A series has broken out between these rivals, at last, which means there's a series to finish.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, send Stein a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.