Gary Neal rose from the left wing, his feet synchronized, and buried a three-pointer that prompted a perplexed and furious Phil Jackson to call a timeout to stop the second-half bleeding.
He often lets his players coach themselves out of deficits. This time, he had seen enough to know the Lakers were heading south in the fourth quarter faster than an 18-wheeler from Mexico up Interstate-35.
Jackson summoned Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol with more than nine minutes left. Gregg Popovich stuck with Neal and Dejuan Blair. Tim Duncan remained seated for the next three minutes alongside the game's leading scorer Tony Parker.
Duncan managed just two points, tying his career-worst outing. Manu Ginobili labored through a 3-of-12 night. The Spurs still vanquished the Lakers 97-82 with suffocating defense and an overdose of the NBA's shortest starting center. Blair, famous for not having any ACLs, brought the towering L.A. frontline to its knees with 17 points and 12 rebounds.
George Hill blocked two shots and swiped two errant passes. He barked back at Bryant in a must-see-TV second-quarter tussle. He also grabbed nine rebounds and did not commit any turnovers.
Tiago Splitter did not allow Andrew Bynum's horse collar foul to zap his energy in seven minutes of daylight. He collected three quick fouls of his own but not before sending a Gasol jump shot out of the 210 area code and into another orbit.
The Spurs owned the interior for most of the match, and Blair gets much of the credit for that. He harassed the longer Bynum and Gasol by anticipating their arrival spots and picking off errant post passes. He showed off a quick-release floater, a few hook shots and an immeasurable gumption on the glass.
While R.C. Buford and Popovich should thank a slew of opponents for passing on Hill and Blair in the 2008 and 2009 drafts, Neal might be as much of a steal. The undrafted Towson product did more than swish another pressure-packed shot in a fourth quarter. He also bricked enough triples, 6-of-9, to uncover one of the Lakers' statistical strengths as a lie.
L.A. yields the fourth lowest three-point shooting percentage in the league, 33, while San Antonio allows the second highest, 40. How can anyone who watched Tuesday's beatdown still accept those numbers as accurate defensive barometers?
The Spurs chucked up 32 treys, and their 28-percent rate of connection will bolster the Lakers' on-paper case as a team that eliminates the outside shot from its opponent's arsenal.
Neal's final three-pointer, though, was the toughest of the nine he attempted, and 1-of-4 that Laker defenders contested. The Spurs made three of those. The other 28 looks were as open as the bar at a wedding reception.
Richard Jefferson had time to check his mail and see the True Grit remake before firing six of his eight triples. He drained just two, and five of his corner three attempts lacked their usual pop.
Neal and Ginobili became acquainted with the back iron a combined 11 times. Hill misfired on both long-distance tries. No one in purple and gold ran them off the line. Maybe the absence of a defender within 50 feet plays into a peculiar Jackson strategy. Leave them so wide open that the lax coverage shocks them into a brick? It worked to perfection Tuesday night.
I have seen the Lakers do this so often in the previous three years. I still cannot comprehend how they manage to rank amongst the league leaders in preventing downtown bombs.
The Miami Heat shooters gorged from an all-you-can eat buffet of open looks Saturday afternoon. The Boston Celtics owed their lone NBA Finals road win in June to Ray Allen's record three-point night. He dropped eight treys, and many became available courtesy of simple screens.
What Allen did next in the series—almost leaving the record for consecutive misses in the dust—makes the Lakers' fictional defensive prowess in this area more difficult to understand. Some of his wide-left and wide-right clangs were less contested than the ones he drilled at the Staples Center.
The Spurs felt this a few years ago in the Western Conference Finals when a bevy of aging shooters failed to make enough jumpshots down the stretch. The Lakers capitalized then as they still can now.
Popovich is right when he says L.A.'s pedigree as the two-time defending champion is all that matters. He knows how arduous the task of sending Bryant home can be. He respects the incredible Laker length. He respects Jackson.
Neal, though, exposed the biggest chink in that mighty purple and gold armor. When the Spurs needed baskets to put away the Lakers, all the three-pointers they could handle were there for the taking. Some analysts say no one can beat L.A with a barrage of triples. I ask: why haven't more foes done it?
San Antonio began to live by the three after Parker established early that no defender would keep him away from the basket. Most teams sputter less often when the inside opens up the outside.
Those same three-pointers will be there should these two teams meet in the playoffs again. Duncan figures to touch the ball a lot more, and penetration by Parker and Ginobili will cause the Laker defense to collapse around the hoop.
The Spurs, and any other opponent hoping to dethrone the champs, will need to make a high-percentage of those wide-open looks to have a chance in April, May or June. If they get 28 more uncontested looks, they must bag more of them.
Tuesday, San Antonio romped anyway because Bryant struggled through an arctic 8-for-27 outing, Blair was a man child, Parker raided the rim whenever he desired and L.A. shot a season-low 35 percent.
Credit Hill, Ginobili and a spectacular team defense for a gutsy, statement effort. They swarmed Bryant, harangued Gasol and flustered Shannon Brown. Gasol finished 3-of-8 and Brown was 1-for-11. The Lakers starters not named Bryant finished a dismal 11-for-30.
The Spurs played the defense Popovich had been longing to see since opening night.
No one wins a title in December, but the Spurs may have learned another championship-caliber lesson, too.
Those wide-open threes by Neal and the others that would have made the Lakers' night even uglier?
There will be plenty of those next time.
What's in a number?
In the Lakers' strange long-distance case, not much.
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