<
>

Lakers can't match Spurs' energy in Game 3

SAN ANTONIO -- Kobe Bryant comes out firing on the road and sticks his first three shots, leading to a natural assumption for the nervous locals.

The assumption is that an eruption is forthcoming.

That was the reflex conclusion for the fearful masses gathered Sunday night at the AT&T Center. Maybe Bryant didn't start scoring until he had to in Game 1 of these Western Conference finals, but this was a Game 3 that threatened to shove their San Antonio Spurs into a pit they realistically couldn't climb out of. So no one around here, given the threat of a 3-0 series deficit to the surging Los Angeles Lakers, was expecting to see Facilitator Kobe.

No one in the building would have been too surprised to get an immediate glimpse of Go For The Jugular Kobe, who duly drained those first three jumpers in the first three minutes of the game.

All of the above is pretty rational thinking from the San Antonio perspective. Or at least understandable thinking.

The surprise in Game 3 was that so many folks on the other side -- when L.A. was seemingly flush with confidence after registering an epic comeback from 20 points down and then a 30-point rout in the first two games -- seemed to be thinking the same.

The surprise is not that the Lakers lost when the Spurs were so desperate. It's that they largely no-showed.

It looked as though too many gun-shy Lakers were waiting for Bryant to uncork one of his scoring explosions of yore in this hostile environment and win Game 3 for them.

Too many Lakers played without any bite or bounce, like they had achieved something by taking a 2-0 lead.

Big mistake.

It remains to be seen whether one strong finish at home will be enough to fully resurrect San Antonio. Yet Lakers coach Phil Jackson didn't hesitate when someone asked whether he thought the Spurs gradually pulling away for what wound up as a convincing 103-84 rout, thereby slicing L.A.'s lead to 2-1, meant that the reigning champions had indeed been allowed to rise off the mat.

"I do," Jackson said.

If he's right?

Uh-oh.

We repeat: Jackson's suspicions can be confirmed only if the Spurs win Game 4. The same fears about Bryant detonating are sure to quickly wash over that crowd Tuesday night, too. The Spurs certainly don't feel safe yet.

That said …

The Lakers had quite an opportunity in Game 3 against a team undeniably lacking freshness and perhaps even questioning itself. True, expecting Kobe's Kids to go on and win three straight over the mighty Spurs was a bit much, given that San Antonio now has won 13 straight playoff games at home. But you never expected L.A. to respond with so much sloppiness and borderline indifference.
Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol were alternately hurried and tentative in the paint while Tim Duncan was racking up 22 points and 21 rebounds … and that was merely one area of regret.

The Lakers didn't move the ball crisply, frequently failed to convert inside when they got to the rim and clanked nine of their 17 free throws.

They also couldn't get Bryant (30 points) any sustained help, couldn't find a counter to San Antonio's title-tested threesome of Duncan, Tony Parker and -- yes -- a revived Manu Ginobili and thus couldn't stop the Spurs from putting something back in their swagger tank.

"It's a good experience," Bryant said, "for us to play against the defending champs and have them kick our butts the way they did."

Good?

Really?

Only if the Lakers live up to what No. 24 offered up next.

"I think we grew up a lot tonight," Bryant said. "We have to understand the sense of urgency and type of energy that we have to play with and come back on Tuesday ready to do that."

That includes Bryant. The early flurry and his late burst of four 3-pointers in the fourth quarter were promising salvos, but the fact remains that Kobe -- believe it or not -- still can't get to the line. He didn't attempt a free throw Sunday until the final period, after drawing a foul on longtime foil Bruce Bowen as he rose up for one of those triples … and wound up missing his only freebie.

It was his sixth free-throw attempt of the series.

But Bryant surely was last on the list of culprits. The visitors got almost nothing from their vaunted bench, outside of Jordan Farmar's 10 points. Derek Fisher -- who sank a fairly memorable buzzer-beater in his previous playoff game in this building as a Laker -- was barely there.

Odom, meanwhile, said he would "take the blame" for most of L.A.'s ills, referring to his 2-for-11 shooting and five turnovers by adding: "There's no way I can play like that for us to be successful."

The Lakers actually could live with the way Ginobili rebounded from his Hollywood horrors. Five of Ginobili's seven buckets in a 22-point first half were 3s -- and most of those shots were contested -- so it's not as if the NBA's freshly minted Sixth Man Award winner was suddenly blowing by them after days of concern about his explosiveness, thanks to a nagging ankle problem.

The Argentine danger man returned to the playoffs because he got a few daggers to drop, starting with crucial back-to-back triples after L.A. had seized a 15-8 lead and capped by Ginobili's fallaway bomb in the final minute of the first half with Sasha Vujacic draped all over him. Although Ginobili did mix in a couple of late drives to finish with 30 points, Jackson wasn't wrong when he said of Ginobili's first-half damage: "Those shots he was making, it didn't matter who you put on him."

What the Lakers can't have, however, is the Spurs looking "quicker to the ball," as Jackson described them. The Spurs did expertly limit L.A. with their transition D, as they so often do, but Jackson lamented how much more "energized" San Antonio was.

"They played with a lot more emotion," Jackson said.

Quickness? Energy? Hunger?

You'd naturally assume that the younger Lakers can only look better in all those areas next time we see them.

Wouldn't you?

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