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Seeing stars in LA

San Antonio shaken as Bryant, O'Neal take boots to Spurs

SAN ANTONIO -- Back in a recent, wistful moment, Phil Jackson reflected on perhaps having his last taco here while enjoying a view of what he called the "green rio." That would be the San Antonio River, which snakes through the city and on whose banks are lined hotels, fine dining establishments, shops and, yes, a place to get a taco.

Jackson will have a chance to do it again, and maybe again, as his Lakers have recovered from a 2-0 hole to square their Western Conference series, 2-2, with the Spurs. Game 5 tonight is at the SBC Center, where San Antonio has won 17 straight games since March 1 and where the Lakers are 0-5 in postseason play over the last two years.

The Lakers are back in the series, thanks to the otherworldly play of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. You may have heard of them. Bryant returned from a Colorado courtoom Wednesday after pleading not guilty to felony rape and poured in 42 points, rallying the Lakers to a 98-90 victory in Game 4. The Lakers are 4-0 now in games in which Bryant commutes from Colorado for the game that night; he is averaging 30.5 points in those games. Think his attorneys can find something to ask for an emergency hearing today?

"It was unbelievable," Karl Malone said of Bryant's performance, which featured 15-of-27 shooting, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, and 0 turnovers in 45 minutes. "I've said it before. For what a young man like him went through and to continue to come out and do what he does is pretty incredible."

O'Neal, who roughed up the Spurs in Game 3, came back in Game 4 to score 28 points, snare 14 rebounds, block 4 shots and, most surprising, drop 8 of 11 free throws. He took over Game 4 in the third quarter, when the Lakers outscored the Spurs, 31-16, and wrested control of the game. The team then turned things over to Kobe in the fourth, and in a Jordan-esque performance, Bryant scored 15 in the quarter.

"No matter how you slice it," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, "it was Shaq and Kobe."

One could argue that the Lakers have the momentum in this pendulum-swinging series, and with the rejuvenated O'Neal and the generally efficient Bryant, that could well be the case. In the last two games, the Lakers have played a lot more like the team that started 18-3 than the one plagued by injuries and in-fighting, not to mention the one that lost the first two games of this series. If that keeps up, they will be hard to beat.

"We'll attempt to play the same style [for Game 5] but we also have to realize that this is something we cannot do," said Bryant. "Home basketball in the playoffs and road basketball in the playoffs are two completely different animals."

This series is mirroring last year's conference semifinal, in which the Spurs went up, 2-0, lost the next two in LA, then closed out the Lakers in six. Asked about the similarities, Tim Duncan said, "it is similar. I hope it continues to be that way."

The Lakers are shooting 49 percent against the league's No. 1 team in field goal defense. Los Angeles scorched the Spurs in the second half of Game 4, shooting 57 percent and outscoring them, 55-37. Much of that is because the Spurs are seeing O'Neal and Bryant on a game-by-game basis instead of, say, Brent Barry and Calvin Booth. Shaq is shooting 67 percent; Bryant is at 47 percent.

"We just have to get one in their building," O'Neal said. "It is a different series now. We have three games left and the first team to win two moves on. We played two great games [in LA] and we just have to go [to San Antonio] and do well. We always have had confidence."

Popovich said he felt a lot better after the Game 4 loss than the Game 3 debacle, in which the Spurs showed up and did their best Atlanta Hawks imitation. He saw a more competitive team, albeit a team that could do nothing against a white-hot Bryant and a bulldozing O'Neal. Popovich said he didn't anticipate any drastic changes or secret plans to try and regain the upper hand in the league's marquee playoff series.

"We're going to be pretty much who we are," Popovich said. "We're going to concentrate on what we do and try to do it a little better."

Over the course of 82 regular-season games and six playoff games, few teams did it any better than the Spurs. San Antonio has not lost three straight since mid-January, a slide that ended with a 109-92 victory over the Celtics at the FleetCenter Jan. 18. Someone is going to leave here with a 3-2 lead. Jackson only hopes it's his team, and that he can kiss the tacos and the green rio goodbye on his way out of town. 

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