NBA Playoffs: The Lakers Head to the Finals

by Hayden Alfano

The changing of the guard. The passing of the torch. Whatever you want to call it, it happens when the defending champions are eliminated from contention. It occurred last night, Thursday, May 29, in the National Basketball Association (NBA) playoffs, as the San Antonio Spurs were on the losing end of a 100-92 game with the Los Angeles Lakers. The win gave the Lakers a 4-1 victory in the best-of-seven Western Conference finals.

But that series may have done more than propel LA into the NBA Finals and to terminate the Spurs reign as the NBA champs. It very well could mark the end of the league’s most recent dynasty — and perhaps signal the start of another.

The Spurs have won four of the last nine NBA titles, including every other season starting in 2003. (It’s worth noting that the Lakers won three straight championships from 2000-2002. Those teams featured Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, however, and while Bryant remains and is now the team’s top gun, O’Neal’s departure for the Miami Heat — where he won a title in 2006 — meant that the Lakers essentially had to start over). During that time, the Spurs have drawn criticism from casual fans who say their physical, defense-oriented style of play is boring. Purists and those in the know, however, appreciate the steady play of Tim Duncan (who many say is the greatest power forward in history); the creative playmaking of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili; the lockdown defense of Bruce Bowen; and Robert “Big Shot Bob” Horry’s penchant for seizing the moment.

These Spurs in this series, however, lacked the killer instinct that typically defines a champion. In Game 1, they blew a 20-point third-quarter lead. They let the Lakers off the mat again in Thursday’s series-clincher, squandering a 17-point first-half advantage. In Game 4, with a chance to even the series at two games apiece, they failed exactly where the Lakers had succeeded, erasing an early 14-point deficit but wasting opportunity after opportunity to take the lead.

Anyone who has watched the Spurs over the last several years can recognize that while the names on the back of the jerseys are the same as they have been, the players aren’t. Duncan has lost a half-step. Ginobili’s body seems to be betraying him. The bench is … old.

Despite all of that, however, the Spurs as constructed might be able to win a title in the next few years — if it weren’t for the Lakers.

While no one is ready to anoint Los Angeles as the 2008 champs just yet (they have to beat either the Boston Celtics or Detroit Pistons in the Finals first*), there is a growing sentiment in NBA circles that if you’re going to beat the Lakers any time soon, this is the year.

Bryant is the team’s star. Now in his 12th NBA season, he may seem too old to start a dynasty around, but for all the tread on his tires, he doesn’t turn 30 until this coming August. Besides, he doesn’t appear to have lost anything yet — he won his first Most Valuable Player award this year, after all.

But the difference between this year’s Lakers and the previous few editions are the players around Bryant. That group starts with Pau Gasol, All-Star forward from Spain, who came over from Memphis in a midseason trade that ranks among the most imbalanced in NBA history. Gasol was acquired in large part to fill in for Andrew Bynum, the team’s 20-year-old center who was enjoying a breakout campaign before going down for the season with a knee injury on January 13. Bynum’s expected to be back at full strength next year, and the thought of him paired with the 27-year-old Gasol for at least the next couple of years is one that has NBA coaches and general managers up at night.

Add to the mix versatile forward Lamar Odom — who excels as the second- or third-option he is in LA, rather than the starring role he’s been asked to play elsewhere — young point guard Jordan Farmar — who appears more ready to take over for veteran Derek Fisher every day — and the league’s best young bench, and the Lakers are, on paper anyway, at least as formidable as the Spurs of the last decade.

They haven’t won anything yet. But if they do win a handful of titles over the next several years, remember when it started.

Television Viewing Guide

The NBA Playoffs resume tonight, Friday, May 30, with a game between Boston and Detroit. Tip-off is at 8:30 p.m. EDT, on ESPN. Boston leads that series three games to two. Should Detroit prevail in Game 6, a deciding seventh game would take place back in Boston on Sunday, June 1, at 8:30 p.m. EDT, on ABC. Game 1 of the NBA Finals, featuring the Lakers and the winner of the Detroit-Boston series, will take place on Thursday, June 5.

(To see highlights of the final game between the Lakers and the Spurs, please check below.)

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