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Ragged-looking Lakers living on edge

WashPost: If L.A. waiting to turn it on, it better do it now
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Knowing what drama and dysfunction has done for his league, David Stern facetiously acknowledged recently he would love to see the Lakers vs. the Lakers in the finals.

Whether Shaqobe and that assortment of curmudgeons and extras advance is up for much debate today, because Tim Duncan was his towering self when it mattered and the San Antonio Spurs shook the confidence and cadence of the Lakers in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals.

But assuredly and almost on cue for the commissioner, what with this 88-78 meltdown before a rowdy gathering in south Texas, the Lakers are taking on themselves again.

Kobe Bryant went 1 on 9, treating everyone in his path like traffic cones. Karl Malone and Gary Payton, expressly acquired for this series, took on the rim and lost, combining to shoot 4 of 18 from the field. Shaquille O'Neal vs. His Free-Throw Psyche was good theater, too. Shaq pushed the ball like a shot put, making 3 of 13 with no one on him from 15 feet away.

Did we mention the Lakers had this game, were a few good possessions away from stealing home-court advantage in the NBA's most scintillating postseason rivalry since the Bulls-Knicks clashes of the early 1990s?

It was only Game 1, yet all the old familiar questions haunt the NBA's longest-running docudrama.

Why can't four future Hall of Famers play like a fantasy team come to life? What is it with this flip-the-switch mentality that only registers when the Lakers are perilously close to falling apart? And, is Phil Jackson saving all his timeouts for a) Game 2 or b) summer league?

Maybe the self-flagellation that goes on in Lakerland discounts how good the Spurs are, how well Tony Parker, Bruce Bowen and the supporting cast understand their place and space around Duncan, the league's reigning most valuable player. Maybe this menacing defense that forced 10 turnovers during a 19-2 run in the fourth quarter is why the Spurs have to be favorites to win their second straight title and third in the past six years.

But this series deserves so much more than the Lakers impersonating a young, inexperienced team down the stretch.

Bryant was asked when his team would start executing well at the end of games, being that this was only Game No. 88 in the young season. He got a little testy, which is understandable given his teammates, deep down, felt he was as responsible for their demise as anyone.

Sometimes, he took on the Spurs. Other times, it was No. 8 against mankind -- the world's most graceful and wondrous player transforming himself into the guy at the community center taking all the jack-knife, double-clutch shots while his teammates bemoan not taking instead the corny-headband dude, dribbling by himself on the side.

Oh, Bryant was good, spectacular even -- 31 points in 45 minutes and all the aesthetic appeal that makes him must-see TV. But the long faces from the bench say everything.

"We tried to knock them out instead of just execute," Malone said in the cramped visitors locker room at the SBC Center. Malone was explaining how a five-point fourth-quarter lead became a 12-point deficit in less than 10 minutes.

The Spurs are one of the worst finals draws of all time, for whatever reason. Their series against the Nets last season went six games, but the numbers were worse than any finals competition since 1981 -- when the NBA ditched its tape-delay championship series for live broadcasts. San Antonio vs. New York in 1999 also drew infinitesimal ratings. The people wanted their stars, and a year after Michael Jordan's second retirement, Herb Williams and Chris Dudley against David Robinson would not do.

Then along came the telegenic duo, Kobe and Shaq, winners of three straight titles between 2000 and 2002, who enraptured the masses again.

This is not a news flash, but with the exception of the Spurs and their legions most of the nation wants to see the Lakers advance, if for no other reason than the controversy surrounding their young star -- the otherworldly guard doubling as a criminal defendant in a Colorado sexual assault case.

O'Neal is as good as it gets when it comes to Goliath in the pivot. He comes through that tunnel from the locker room onto the court in Sacramento and San Antonio, and it's like Russell Crowe walking into a computer-generated Coliseum in "The Gladiator."

And, whether people want to behold Malone and Payton or not, something about two creaky-kneed legends playing for a relative pittance so they can win that elusive championship is worth celebrating.

But if they do nothing better than go down in five or six games to the Spurs, if the Lakers do nothing better than beat themselves, what does that say about the careers of all those legends in the making, including the deified coach?

It is much too early in this series to cast any kind of real aspersion. Still, the Spurs and Lakers are supposed to be waged in a steel-cage scrap for everything in the NBA kitty -- Tim to the rim, Shaq to the rack, all that Homespun Small Market Team vs. Hollywood Dysfunction drivel that often equals expectation.

Instead, one game in, we're getting Stern's wish, way ahead of schedule -- Lakers vs. Lakers and 28 other teams impossible to find with an antenna.