Spurs refuse to blame loss on refs

SAN ANTONIO -- They can certainly complain about that final, fateful play.

They had pretty reasonable justification to moan about the whistle that wasn't blown.

But you know what?

The San Antonio Spurs passed.

The Spurs resisted Tuesday night when presented with yet another chance to fume about the presence of the referee they dread seeing more than any other, presumably because they know the truth.

Which is to say that they've had too many promising opportunities in these Western Conference finals, too many to bray about one non-call from Joey Crawford, no matter how crucial the timing. The Spurs are down 3-1 to the Los Angeles Lakers because that's where they belong.

Brent Barry definitely did appear to be fouled on the dribble by Derek Fisher just before the Game 4 buzzer sounded, which seemingly should have sent him to the line for two free throws to force overtime. When the call didn't come, Barry's hopeless heave at the horn sealed a 93-91 defeat to L.A. that edged San Antonio to the brink of elimination ... and another failure to win back-to-back championships.

Yet it's instructive to note that Barry -- who had the playoff game of his life ruined by the final score -- was the Spurs' loudest non-complainer.

Bones knows.

"That play," Barry said, "was not where the game was lost."

You could make a strong case that the Spurs shouldn't even have been in the position to tie or win this Game 4 on their final possession. Television replays indicate that Fisher's shot with 6.9 seconds to go grazed the rim before bouncing out of bounds off Robert Horry's leg, meaning that the Lakers should have had a new shot clock instead of asking Kobe Bryant to hurry a fadeaway jumper after the ensuing timeout. A new shot clock would have forced the Spurs to foul Bryant (assuming no turnover) as opposed to getting the ball back off Bryant's miss to draw up a potential game-winning play.

You can then make an even stronger case that the Spurs needn't waste time looking for scapegoats, even after a loss that shoved them into a huge hole, when the Lakers have been consistently charitable in this series, furnishing San Antonio with various openings to be the team with a 3-1 lead.

It's the Spurs who couldn't hold that 20-point lead in Game 1 when they had an immediate opening to unnerve their younger challengers. It's the Spurs who wiped out L.A.'s early 14-point lead in Game 4 but squandered countless opportunities to land a haymaker and snatch the lead, even when the Lakers kept inviting them back ... all the way through to Bryant's brain lock in the final minute and a rushed layup when he should have been dribbling seconds off the clock.

Crawford? Except for that last one, Tuesday's whistles mostly favored the Spurs, who shot 26 free throws to the Lakers' 19 ... and who happily watched Bryant go the line zero times. If anyone appeared to be bothered by Crawford's first San Antonio appearance of the playoffs, it was actually Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who was so enraged by the early fouls called on Fisher and Lamar Odom that he complained about the refereeing during his in-game TNT interview between the first and second quarters.

Asked to explain how San Antonio sliced its early 22-8 deficit to five by quarter's end, Jackson told TNT's Craig Sager: "You want me to be honest with you? The guys with the whistles."

The bulk of the evening's honesty, refreshingly, came from the defending champs. The Spurs realize what they gave away by failing to finish off the series opener. The Spurs understand that they've lost the right to complain about too much when they've controlled the tempo in three of the four games and lost two of those three by a combined six points to a group that hasn't been where they've been in the postseason.

The Spurs know they've kept Bryant off the line more effectively than they ever could have dreamed and haven't capitalized ... and that Barry's 23 points in 27 minutes offset Manu Ginobili's latest bout of ankle-induced misery (seven points on 2-for-8 shooting in 36 minutes) ... and that lamenting Ginobili's physical struggles -- or the fact that Kobe added to Manu's woes by taking several turns guarding him -- won't be met with much sympathy in a series where the Lakers could have used a forgotten big man named Andrew Bynum.

So they weren't going to pin their predicament on Crawford. No matter what they really think of him.

Not when the locals, whipped into an all-day frenzy by various news outlets fretting over the Crawford Factor, could so easily spot the real difference in San Antonio's first home loss in 14 playoff games: L.A. never trailed in this breakthrough triumph and used its prowess on the offensive glass to produce a decisive 26-4 edge in second-chance points.

"It wasn't a foul," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "...I think it was a proper no-call, from what I saw."

Said Tim Duncan, visibly stunned that his 29-point, 17-rebound, three-steal, three-block brilliance wound up meaning nothing: "You're not going to get that call. They're not going to make that call."

Not because it was Crawford, Duncan meant. Because of the end-of-game situation.

Duncan added: "Losing at home, giving up 20-plus points in second-chance points, points off turnovers and losing by two ... when you put all of that together, it was a game that we really could have and really should have won."

Not the first time we've heard such sentiments coming out of the Spurs' locker room lately.

"We had a hill to climb being down 0-2," Barry said. "And now we have Everest to climb being down 3-1."

And if you try to bring up how sensationally he played on a gloomy night when the seven Spurs outside of the Duncan-Tony Parker-Barry troika combined for just 16 points, Barry said: "It's like putting whipped cream on s---."

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