A Rivalry That Hasn't Gotten Old
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
NEW ORLEANS -- Tony Parker was cracking jokes at his locker room stall, pausing to answer congratulatory calls on his cellphone. He was in a jovial mood on Monday night after his 19-foot jumper with 50.1 seconds remaining in Game 7 against the New Orleans Hornets secured the sixth Western Conference finals appearance in 10 seasons for the San Antonio Spurs.
But when a reporter uttered three words to him, Parker curled his lips and rolled his eyes in disgust: Lakers. Spurs. Again.
"It's getting old," Parker said about the Spurs facing the Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs for the sixth time since 1999. Then Parker paused, cracked a sly grin and said: "Nah, it never gets old. It's always great to play the Lakers. Kobe [Bryant] is at his best. They have a great team. Back to the rivalry; it's going to be great."
If anything has gotten old, it's the Spurs, who have had to hear about their age this season more times than Republican presidential candidate John McCain. "People always talk about us being old," said Spurs reserve Robert Horry, 37. "They classify you as being old because you don't dunk anymore or don't slash as fast as you used to slash, but we're still going. Our game plan is usually pretty good."
After a grueling seven-game series against the upstart Hornets, the Spurs will face another young, quick and athletic team in the Lakers, who host Game 1 on Wednesday night.
Derek Fisher is the Lakers' only regular rotation player older than 30. On the other hand, Parker is the only player who is younger than 30 in the Spurs' regular rotation. But the 26-year-old Parker doesn't mind being grouped with the rest of the AARP roster. "With all the years with the [French] national team, you can add me an extra four years," Parker said with a laugh.
Parker and Horry both joked that a postseason reunion with the Lakers will make them feel young again.
Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Fisher and Horry have been around for each of the previous five Lakers-Spurs clashes, of which the Lakers won three. Horry switched from the Lakers to the Spurs before the teams last met in the conference semifinals in 2004, a series that the Lakers won after Fisher made an off-balance 17-foot jumper with 0.4 of a second left in the critical Game 5. The Lakers advanced to the NBA Finals that season, losing to the Detroit Pistons.
In the years that followed, the Spurs won two of their four NBA championships. The Lakers traded Shaquille O'Neal in July 2004 and didn't win another playoff series until this year.
Before the season began, it wasn't out of the realm of possibility for the defending champion Spurs to reach the conference finals, even though San Antonio didn't make it past the second round in the three previous seasons following a championship.
The Lakers surely were a long shot back then, with the controversy surrounding Bryant and his trade demands last summer. They are back in the conference finals largely because Bryant -- whom Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich calls "the greatest player on the planet" -- blocked out the distractions, became a better teammate and earned the league's most valuable player award.
But Bryant likely wouldn't have won the award and the Lakers wouldn't have joined the NBA elite or tasted Shaq-less postseason success without General Manager Mitch Kupchak pulling off the trade that brought Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies. The Lakers are an incredible 30-7 with Gasol in the lineup and 35-11 overall since the trade that brought the former all-star to Los Angeles in exchange for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie, the draft rights to Marc Gasol and two first-round draft picks.
Popovich was the a vocal critic of the deal because he realized the potential impact on the Lakers, the league and especially the Spurs. Popovich ripped Grizzlies General Manager Chris Wallace and suggested that the league needed to establish a trade committee to oversee deals that "make no sense."
Kupchak was flabbergasted to hear the negative backlash about the Gasol deal. "We've all been in this business long enough to know that it takes years to evaluate a deal, and it surprised me that people would openly and publicly make comments," he said.
Spurs defensive specialist Bruce Bowen has had many heated battles with Bryant over the years and said that Gasol's presence has opened up the floor more for Bryant to do damage. "I think when he had Shaq, he was doing big things because Shaq would occupy different guys," Bowen said. "Pau has that type of ability to create certain matchups and attention to himself where Kobe is able to go free off the top."
The Lakers and Spurs split their four regular season games, with both teams winning at home. The Lakers have recorded three road wins this postseason and have had a relatively smooth ride through Denver and Utah. The Spurs breezed past Phoenix, but needed to overcome a 2-0 deficit and also win a Game 7 on the road against New Orleans, both franchise firsts. Duncan credited the Spurs' survival against the Hornets to "a lot of confidence, a lot of games under our belt."
"Make no bones about it," Bowen said. "We understand that it's a privilege to be here, it's not a right of ours."
It just looks that way.