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Where have these dominant Lakers been?

WashPost: Shaq, Kobe & Co. finally played the way we expected in win over Spurs on Sunday.
Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal dunks in front of San Antonio's Tim Duncan. The Lakers beat the Spurs on Sunday in Los Angeles.
Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal dunks in front of San Antonio's Tim Duncan. The Lakers beat the Spurs on Sunday in Los Angeles.Kevork Djansezian / AP

I'm angry with the Los Angeles Lakers today, and you should be, too, for withholding their excellence until the eighth game of the NBA playoffs. How dare they finally come to play three games into the second round? I'd forgotten they could play with such passion and purpose because they've done it so infrequently the last month, if they've done it at all. Through their victorious five-game series against the Houston Rockets and two unimpressive efforts in San Antonio, the Lakers looked like a good playoff team but certainly nothing special. There was nothing in the way they went about their business that suggested they have a roster stocked with four likely Hall of Fame players.

On Saturday, Phil Jackson said publicly this is "a team with a nebulous future." He'd lost sleep thinking about this ordeal of a season, the arguing, the accusing, the insubordination, and though he didn't say so, we must presume the underachieving. Just an hour or so before Game 3 tipped off Sunday, Jackson was made aware of Gary Payton's latest complaining, and the coach said he knew his starting point guard would "stand on his hind legs and bark if he gets a chance to defend himself."

Goodness mercy, just as the Lakers' act had about worn out everybody — us and them — they took the court and delivered the kind of smart, efficient, dominating effort from start to finish we'd been hoping to see, but hadn't.

"I think people came here today," Kobe Bryant said, "waiting to see what Lakers team was going to show up."

Yes, Kobe, we did. And almost surprisingly, the team of which so much was expected from the time this roster was put together indeed showed up. "I wouldn't use the word 'surprised,' " Karl Malone told me long after the game. "I'd use, 'refreshing.' It was refreshing to know we've got a game like this in us."

It has been so long, perhaps the Lakers themselves had forgotten, too. They beat the defending champs in every phase of basketball. Nobody hogged the ball (Kobe took just 13 shots). The Lakers looked first and foremost for Shaq, who justified his teammates' faith in him not only by hitting 11 of 13 shots but by making 6 of 11 foul shots, grabbing 15 rebounds and blocking eight shots. Bryant sacrificed his own offense to help double-team Tim Duncan (10 points on 4-0f-14 shooting) and disrupt the Spurs' previously unstoppable screen-and-roll offense.

And it didn't even start with the technical stuff. The Lakers, every single one of 'em, played with the desire we're accustomed to seeing from some no-talent Bad News Bears of a high school team. Before the game was six minutes old, all five starters had dived to the floor to chase loose balls. On one play, Devean George and Malone went out of bounds on one side of the court chasing a loose ball, and Payton went into the crowd clear on the other side. Even Shaq, all 340 pounds of him or whatever he weighs, crashed to the floor at mid-court going after a loose ball. "It wasn't the smartest play," Jackson said, referring to Shaq committing a foul on the play with the shot clock being near zero on the Spurs' possession, "but it showed the kind of intensity he wanted to play with."

The effort, creativity and willingness to cut out the selfish play and stick to Jackson's game plan was evident everywhere you looked, even statistically. Because they passed the ball so consistently (29 assists on 37 baskets), the Lakers shot 57 percent. Because they fought through screens and clogged the lane to stop Duncan, the Lakers held the Spurs to 34 percent shooting. And when the Lakers play with the kind of determination and unselfishness they demonstrated in Game 3, anything and everything is possible for them. Yes, the Spurs missed a ton of open three-pointers and Duncan appeared to have been asleep the entire first half, which won't happen again in Game 4 on Tuesday. Even so, when the Lakers play the way they did Sunday, there's not a team in the NBA that can get within 10 points of them in the playoffs.

So what the heck took them so long?

Bryant mentioned the urgency that comes with being down 0-2 to the defending champs.

Well then, why couldn't they summon that sense of urgency when the series started, or when the Houston series started? These are the playoffs after all. To dismiss the regular season is one thing, but the playoffs?

"To beat the Spurs," Kobe said, "you have to execute. Emotion and momentum alone won't do it."

But emotion has to be one of the ingredients.

"It's not that we can't play and haven't played this season without it," Jackson said. "It's simply that [today] we had to rally in a way where these guys knew what they were doing and could play with full-out intensity."

While he'll claim no credit for it, it's clear Jackson's tirade on Saturday reached some, perhaps all, of his players. It was fair to wonder if Jackson could reach this bunch anymore, the way he reached the Lakers when he whipped them into championship shape in 2000 after three years of postseason woe under other coaches. So far, Jackson is still King of the Big Moments, at least in the NBA. He told reporters here on Saturday, "I went down through the list of every single one of them, where they're at, how old they were, what direction they're going to go and what their future is. We only have four or five guys whose future to remain together here seems even possible. It's a team that has to play for [Sunday's] game."

By doing that, Jackson threw his hand down on the table. Because he's not a screamer and ranter every single night, because he sits there and mostly lets them play themselves into and out of trouble, his players knew he was serious. And more important, they had to know he was right about this game being worth so much, not just to this series and the playoffs, but how they'll be perceived as a team.

Those of us not emotionally invested in this series, and who couldn't care less which team wins, wish Jackson had done this earlier, just for the purpose of seeing great basketball from the team most capable of playing it. These days it's hard to find passionate and purposeful basketball played by a team full of great players, so it's a relief — to use Malone's word — when anybody plays so well. Of course, Jackson probably knew he couldn't have played his hand too early. Maybe he had to wait this long.

Either way, it's a sad thing in some ways the Lakers had to be pushed to this point before summoning their greatness. Is it possible one great game is all they've got in them, that they'll revert to passivity and royal nonchalance on Tuesday?

"The pressure's still on us," Jackson said. "We have to still play with the kid of intention and intensity we played with today."

Now that we've been reminded they have it in them, it would be cheating the game, themselves and us to put forth any less of an effort again in these playoffs.