SAN ANTONIO -- As much as Phil Jackson revels in his familiar role as a front runner, it would not have been out of character if he'd had a jeweler in the Lakers locker room at halftime Sunday afternoon.
The Lakers were so good in San Antonio, they should have been sized for championship rings.
At halftime, they led the Spurs -- the only NBA team with 50 wins -- by 28 points. They'd made 56 percent of their shots and 54 percent of their 3-pointers. They had more offensive and defensive rebounds, more assists, steals, blocks and fewer turnovers. They had thoroughly dismantled the Spurs, who'd won 29 of 31 home games this season.
On some days, the 24-second clock is a friend to the offensively challenged. Hot teams get cold, cold teams warm up and the game again becomes close.
Sunday was not one of those games.
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For those who believe in March messages, the Lakers sent one Sunday when they defeated the Spurs 99-83 at the AT&T Center. The final score was deceptive. The Lakers were like Usain Bolt in the home stretch, coasting at the end of a game they led by as many as 21 in the first quarter, 29 in the second, 32 in the third and 31 in the last period.
"We played really well," Jackson said with typical understatement. "We caught them by surprise. I think at the start of the game, we got off the gun pretty well."
It was a stunning loss for the Spurs, who had battered Miami by 30 on the same home court Friday night. At 51-11, the Spurs entered the game 5 games better than any other team in the league and 7.5 ahead of the Lakers. But with a new defensive philosophy by assistant coach Chuck Person -- yes, the same Chuck Person formerly known as "The Rifleman" and was never accused of playing stout defense in his 13-year NBA career -- the Lakers were overpowering defensively.
Good coaches don't necessarily have to have practiced what they preached -- Jackson and Pat Riley are great coaches who were both average players. So Person has made an impressive transition. Kobe Bryant said Person's approach has been for wing players to force opponents towards the middle where 7-footers Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol can use their superior length to either block or alter shots.
That strategy worked Sunday. The Lakers played ferocious defense. Tim Duncan did not score a basket until 1:11 was left in the first half. He ended the game with two points on 1-of-7 shooting. Manu Ginobili was 3-of-10 with six points. Only Tony Parker played near decent, and he had a mere 14 points on 6-of-14 shooting.
Bynum took only two shots, made them both, but also had 17 rebounds, three blocks and many alterations. He was the dominant player on the court in the first quarter when the Lakers blew out to the big lead.
|Kobe Bryant and the Lakers end the Spurs' home winning streak at 22. (Getty Images)|
Bryant, who led all scorers with 26 points, also said Bynum is the Lakers' trump card -- the defensive-minded shot blocker who has the ability to give the Lakers favorable matchups against all potential playoff opponents.
"We have a natural shot blocker," Bryant said. "That's what he does. He has great timing, he moves his feet well and that's a big key for our team."
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was understandably in a less-than-bubbly mood after the game. With 19 games left in the regular season, the Spurs are still in good shape to clinch the home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. But if they play at home like they did on Sunday, it won't matter where they play. And there was little doubt that Popovich is nervous because of the Lakers' height advantage.
"His length is superior," Popovich said of Bynum. "So is Pau [Gasol]. Together they are a heck of a defensive tandem down there. They do a great job. That is why they are NBA champions the last two years. Oh, I guess one of the reasons -- I guess Kobe has something to do with it."
The Spurs were so bad Sunday that 6-foot-10 Steve Novak, a fourth-year forward out of Marquette, played in the first half. Novak had otherwise played only 57 minutes for the Spurs this season. Later, rookie James Anderson from Oklahoma State also got into the game. He'd tallied just 179 minutes this season. But when someone suggested to Popovich that playing time for seldom used players was a positive, Popovich did not take it well.
"It's always good to try to find something positive when you get beaten so badly," said Popovich, who was only warming up. "Then you will say that Tim and Manu got some rest. So I guess that is good. So let's go get beat by 30 every night so we can give them some rest. I don't think that's a good path to go down."
Fortunes can change quickly, even late in the season. On Feb. 16, the Lakers not only lost their third consecutive game, but the loss was to Cleveland, the worst team in the league. No one then was discussing a third consecutive championship.
But now the Lakers have won seven consecutive games and are looking as fearsome as ever. Although Bryant was quick to note that fortunes have reversed for the better, but they can always turn for the worse.
"We knew we were capable of having a game like this and I think San Antonio knows we're capable of having games like this," he said. "It just as easily could go the other way around. They had a game like this last game against Miami. We know each other extremely well. ... We're the champs so everything has to go through us no matter how well anybody is playing, but they've been the best team so far this year."
However, the best team of the year was humbled on Sunday. The Spurs left their home arena knowing that defeating the two-time defending champs is going to be a tall order.