Coach's Corner

San Antonio and Los Angeles are the two best teams in pro basketball. Their meeting this weekend was just a preview of a playoff showdown.

Los Angeles -- The steady tom-tom mantra is this: Laker fan, like his Longhorn counterpart, arrives late, is mute, and departs early. But on Easter Sunday, with the Eastern world embroiled in tragic turmoil, nobody left the chaotic Staples Center until the Lakers won ... which was in the last second.

San Antonio and Los Angeles are the two best teams in pro basketball, but still two teams with questions to answer. I was dead wrong in a preseason assessment of the Spurs: that this was a team treading water (or worse) in the shark-infested Western Conference. With nine new players, who could know? Bruce Bowen, a pugnacious five-year pro the Spurs got from Miami, is hardly a big name -- a Heat defensive stopper from a team of defensive stoppers -- yet he's had a tremendous impact. With Bowen in the lineup, the Spurs usually prevail, including two streaks combining for 23 wins. Without him, a starting forward who averages a miniscule 7 ppg, the Spurs become very ordinary.

Then there's the starting point guard, 19-year-old Tony Parker, the youngest to ever play the position in the NBA. Who, aside from a few insiders, had ever heard of this kid who has been playing pro basketball in France since he was 15? The Spurs went from having the oldest point guard in the league -- and a major weakness, Grandpa Terry Porter -- to the teenage Parker. Next came the devilish pact David Robinson must have signed on or about Feb. 1. Before then, Robinson's career was going the way of all old players: to quote Charles Barkley, "Old basketball players don't get better ... they just get older." Robinson's sluggish play left Tim Duncan all alone under the basket. But The Admiral has arisen from his shallow grave, dramatically improving all his numbers.

For the two-time defending champions the issues are more abstract, properly befitting the personality of Phil Jackson. They're a young but veteran team. Venomously deadly one through 12. Featuring the two best players in the league. They're capable of losing badly to a poor Suns team, or allowing Cleveland to score 116 points, but the next night stuffing their Reeboks down the throat of the very hot Trailblazers, allowing only 79 points, or beating Sacramento in Arco Arena. Hubris is, I guess, the operative word, with the team reflecting their coach. Is there a point where a pro team can be a little too confident in their ability to turn the effort on and off? I don't know, but Los Angeles must be close.

So now it's April and guess what? These games do count. As always, the West is a muddled catfight where teams 1 (Sacramento) through 4 (San Antonio) share moments at the top ... with 5 through 8 not far behind. All four teams lit up the league in March. Oddly, NBC's ratings are atrocious, causing David Stern to start blaming -- what a surprise -- the media for falling attendance and horrible ratings. But here's a thought, David: Don't televise any Eastern Conference games!!

Today's game oozed that proverbial, clichéd, playoff atmosphere. It was violent, filled with technical fouls (four), frantic play, the brilliance of Kobe (despite outstanding urinal-to-basket Bowen defense), a dazzling 16-point third quarter by Duncan, followed by lethal 1-for-9 shooting in the fourth. It had the usual Laker recipe for big game victories: A big night for a third player, tonight 23 utterly unnerving points from Robert Horry. Precious few points for Derek Fisher, but each one a poisoned dagger. It featured gaudy, slapstick, Hollywood flops by Fisher and Horry, both in the fourth quarter, both crucial. Ironically, Fisher's flop with 15 seconds left in the game was the day's biggest play. He melodramatically tossed himself to earth, without being touched, while fighting Malik Rose for a rebound. An official, perhaps mistaking the scrappy Laker guard for Wesley Snipes, was duly impressed, fouling out an exasperated (to put it mildly) Rose. Fisher made both free throws -- his only two of the game -- to give L.A. their one-point margin of victory. Robinson, plagued with tic-tac fouls the entire game, was a non-factor. No superstar has ever gotten less respect from referees over the entire arch of a brilliant career than the gentlemanly Admiral. Shaq "blocked" Duncan's last second shot, which could have won the game. The ball never reached the rim because Shaq also clipped most of Duncan's arm. No whistle. Shaq pretty much felt this was fair, because, "Maybe I got some arm, but who cares? They owe me a few." He also wished all a happy Easter.

These final-minute sounds of referee silence are why home court becomes so important in the playoffs. In the last two minutes this afternoon, every call made (or not made) went to the home team. The Spurs shot only two free throws in the final quarter. The Lakers shot nine, making them all. Horry: "If you're a team respected by the officials, home court makes a big difference."

So the Spurs finish their last major road trip of the season on a three-game losing skid. The Lakers, on the other hand, have beaten three of their major Western rivals -- San Antonio, Sacramento, and Portland -- in the last week. Still, the Spurs looked fresh and quick and the equal of L.A. Their meeting, somewhere along the playoff line, will determine the NBA championship.

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