Spurs still have plenty of work ahead of them

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

SAN ANTONIO -- It will be seen in some quarters as the fourth quarter that finally drained away the last droplets of the Lakers' escape fuel. It will inevitably be described as the night that the champs' magic ran out, and maybe it really has.

It's still too soon to know, though.

The San Antonio Spurs will have to finish the champs off to confirm that diagnosis, and the amazing ending witnessed Tuesday night suggests they aren't quite ready yet, no matter how much deeper and more athletic the Spurs are. The hosts were plainly helpless against one of those storybook comebacks only the Lakers mount, all the way until the final buzzer, when only the rim saved San Antonio's 96-94 victory.

The rim on the north side of SBC Center spit out a dead-on Robert Horry special to decide Game 5 and give us a new Horry story. It usually never happens this way: Horry, a modern-day Mr. Clutch with five rings and countless big shots in his past, missing the game-winner. Hence the suggestion you will hear often between now and Thursday's Game 6, that these Lakers -- too thin, too weary, too often punchless for three quarters -- are out of miracles now, facing a 3-2 series deficit.

Still ...

If you were watching the ending, you will not soon forget how lost the Spurs looked throughout a fourth quarter that saw Shaquille O'Neal chained to the bench for almost six minutes, while luminaries like Slava Medvedenko and Jannero Pargo and Mark Madsen were helping Kobe Bryant haul L.A. out of a 16-point deficit.

Some of you watching the ending, like us, will struggle to envision how these Spurs -- Tim Duncan and David Robinson and the newbies around them -- can close out the champs, if they couldn't finish off a Game 5 they were dominating.

Some of you will share our suspicion that it will be easier for the Lakers to haul themselves off the deck of disappointment more swiftly than the Spurs forget they gave nearly all of a 25-point lead away.

"Are you kidding me?" Bryant said at the close of his post-game news conference. "I'm over this game already."

It won't be that easy for Horry, who admitted afterward that the miss "made me want to shed a tear." Known mostly for the buzzer-beater in Game 4 of last spring's conference finals, which forged a 2-2 tie with Sacramento when a 3-1 hole seemed certain, Horry was sure this one was going down, even though he had missed every 3-pointer he had attempted in the series.

He wasn't alone, either, even though this miss took Horry to an unfathomable 0-for-15 on threes for the series. Fear was palpable all over the building. "That's his shot," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "We've seen it before."

The Lakers' advantage, coming out of the agony, is that they've seen this predicament before, and that the Spurs, with their best days expected in future seasons, have not. L.A. faced a 3-2 deficit in that Sacramento series and won Game 7 in overtime on the other team's floor, when the Kings -- in a game they were supposed to win -- missed 14 free throws and proved unready for the moment.

The solace for the Spurs is that these aren't last year's Lakers. Rick Fox is out, Devean George is hobbled and the bench left over is virtually non-existent. Happy as he was to get 13 points out of Medvedenko in such a big game, seven in the final quarter, Jackson would have preferred not to have taken that sort of risk, feeling the need to play Medvedenko ahead of a sluggish O'Neal at the end of such a big game.

The Spurs also have to hope that Thursday's experience is a life-changing lesson, since they blew the lead but also survived at the finish. Portland didn't survive in Game 7 of the 2000 conference finals. The Kings squandered all of their big lead in that famed Game 4 when Horry connected from the top of the arc. As recently as Sunday, the Spurs held a 16-point lead at Staples Center in the first half and lost it all, denying them the chance to actually win this series in Game 5.

Yet maybe this will be different. Maybe the Lakers' magic has really rimmed out, and maybe the Spurs will now shed the noose that paralyzed them, as the champs' first opponent to crumble in such circumstances but still make it to the other side with the victory.

Popovich can only hope. For three quarters, the Spurs played so loose, running up 20 fast-break points and stifling even Bryant. Then, without warning, everything changed. Bryant made two late threes to close the third, slicing a 22-point deficit to 16, and then the Spurs buckled. They stopped moving the ball, missed five free throws and watched in horror as Malik Rose shanked an uncontested layup by clanging his shot against the bottom of the rim. Out of one timeout, with 3:24 to play and the Spurs' lead down to four, several Lakers were struggling to stifle smiles, so sure that they would be adding another entry to their Greatest Comebacks collection. If Bryant had a truly killer fourth -- he missed five threes -- San Antonio surely would be facing elimination in Game 6.

"They know what they do at the end of games," Popovich said. "I think it's a continuing education process for (our) guys who haven't been there before."

Even the Spurs who have been there, namely Duncan and Robinson, looked as though they needed a nudge. It's why, given the opportunity, the Spurs have to sign Jason Kidd in the off-season, provided Kidd wants to come to Texas. Kidd has the personality, more than anyone the Spurs have at present, to take hold of a game the way Bryant does.

"You can see they have been together for years and they have been winning for years," Duncan said. "We're trying to attain what they have."

A win in Game 6 or 7 would be the Spurs' boldest step yet, to get to the place Bryant tried to describe.

"It has something to do with luck, a lot to do with our grit and our fight, but for whatever reason, we're a tough team to put out," Bryant said.

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.