Loss to Spurs just the tip of the iceberg Loss to Spurs just the tip of the iceberg
By Billy Witz
LOS ANGELES -- Pau Gasol was left with a black-and-blue welt under his right eye, courtesy of an inadvertent punch from Antonio McDyess that staggered Gasol early in the game.
But what really hurt, both for Gasol and the Lakers, was another blow that McDyess delivered.
His tip-in at the buzzer of Tim Duncan's bank shot lifted San Antonio to an 89-88 victory at Staples Center, a defeat that stings on several levels -- the most visceral being that three times in the final 22.7 seconds, the Lakers were unable to secure a game-sealing rebound.
The final time they were beaten to the ball by a 36-year-old backup power forward whose tip with 0.1 seconds left sent the Spurs giddily off the court.
"I got caught watching and didn't keep my body on him," said Lamar Odom, who was responsible for McDyess.
The defeat also hurt in a practical sense. The Lakers' hopes -- faint as they are -- of catching San Antonio for the best record in the Western Conference took another hit. They now trail San Antonio by eight games in the loss column and can do no better than split the season series with the Spurs.
Also taking another hit was the notion that the two-time defending champs are still the team to beat in the NBA.
They dropped to 34-16 and are now third in the Western Conference and sixth overall. That placement is no fluke, either. They are 1-6 against the five teams ahead of them -- Boston, Miami, Chicago, Dallas and San Antonio, and the lone victory was at home against the Carlos Boozer-less Bulls.
Such is the state of the Lakers, who have lost three of their last four -- the only victory in overtime against Houston -- and five of their last nine, that a last-second defeat is considered a sign of progress.
Their defense was solid, particularly that of Ron Artest, who bounced back after a report that suggested he would welcome a trade with a strong game against Manu Ginobli, who made just 5 of 17 shots.
The Lakers held San Antonio to just 41.2 percent shooting, crawled back from an 8-point, fourth-quarter deficit and out-rebounded San Antonio, 44-38.
But the sometimes-inspired defense disappeared altogether when it mattered.
After Gasol made two free throws with 22.7 seconds to give the Lakers the lead, the Spurs got three excellent shots.
The first, a wide-open 3-pointer by Ginobili, missed with about 14 seconds left, but McDyess fought his way to the rebound and sent the ball back out. This time, it was left to Tony Parker to free himself from Steve Blake and launch one of his bread-and-butter shots -- a floater in the lane.
The ball rattled around the rim and bounced out, but McDyess beat Artest to the ball and all the Lakers forward could do was knock it out of bounds with 4.6 seconds left.
The Spurs called timeout, then inbounded the ball to Duncan, who was isolated against Gasol on the right block. Duncan turned and launched a high-arching shot that banked off the glass, then the rim and bounced just to the left of the basket where McDyess was waiting. He leaped and tipped it in at the buzzer.
"It was like slow-motion," said McDyess of the last of his six offensive rebounds. "There was a lot of moving, a lot of switching. I knew after I fouled Pau that I had to get to the boards. I got my hand on all three balls."
Lakers coach Phil Jackson said that with all the switching the Lakers were doing to help on the final possession, Odom got pinned on the wrong side of McDyess.
"The defense has to react and we couldn't get a rebound," Jackson said. "We should have boxed him out. There were too many opportunities at the end of the game. They had four attempts and it cost us."
Gasol, who himself picked up two key offensive rebounds down the stretch, said that the Lakers should have been more aggressive pursuing the ball.
"You've got to find a body," Gasol said. "They got on our backs and it was questionable, but the referees are not going to call it. You have to put him on his ass if you need to."
Right now, it is those little things that separate the Spurs from the Lakers and Thursday they were separated by the thinnest of margins. So it was not surprising that the Spurs, of all teams, expect to hear from the Lakers again.
"I think we're a good team, but I don't have any problem saying that the Lakers are the best team in the West," said Spurs coach Greg Popovich, whose team is 41-8. "I think the struggles are overblown by you guys and gals. They are who they are. They've been doing this a long time. There's no doubt that there's going to be some nights where it's not all there -- emotionally. I think they're the best. I really do."
When this was relayed to Jackson, he smiled.
"I'd like to agree with him," Jackson said. "But our record doesn't show it."
Nevertheless, there was some growth from the Lakers in their performance, which they will need to build upon when they embark Friday on a two-week road trip that will carry them into the All-Star break.
"We should focus on how hard we played," Gasol said. "We need to build our confidence."
Right now, it does not look any better than Gasol's eye -- black and blue, as if it had seen better days. Video - Fox Sports West Video - Fox Sports West