- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 5, 2002

LOS ANGELES (AP) The NBA's dream series last year turned into one of the great mismatches in playoff history a fact the San Antonio Spurs know all too well.
Now, the Spurs are getting another shot at Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and the rest of the Los Angeles Lakers.
They say they're looking forward to it, but odds certainly aren't in their favor. The Spurs will probably be without injured center David Robinson when the Western Conference semifinal series begins today at Staples Center. There's no telling when Robinson will return to action from a strained lower back, and that's just one of the several obstacles the Spurs face.
"I honestly don't know if we will," San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said yesterday when asked when his team will get Robinson back.
Robinson's absence might not be all bad for the Spurs, Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.
"There's a lot of positive aspects for San Antonio this means they'll be quicker starting off, they'll be able to fast break better off the giddyup," Jackson said.
However, he added: "Ultimately, David's one of the best if not the best defensive center in the league."
Considering O'Neal's inside strength, that's a huge loss. Robinson played only seven minutes in San Antonio's first-round series against Seattle, but wasn't needed in the Spurs' 101-78 Game 5 victory Friday night.
"I turned the game off after the first five minutes the game was over," Bryant said.
While the Spurs were being extended in the first round, the Lakers are well-rested, having completed a sweep of Portland last Sunday to give them 19 wins in their last 20 playoff games an unprecedented accomplishment in NBA history.
Four of those wins were over the Spurs in the conference finals last year by scores of 104-90 and 88-81 in San Antonio and 111-72 and 111-82 at Staples Center.
Even Spurs star Tim Duncan struggled in the last two games.
"That was perhaps one of the biggest upsets in a series since the Nets beat the 76ers back in '81 or '82 (actually in the first round in 1984)," Jackson said in an obvious overstatement. "There haven't been many upsets as dramatic as that one. More than anything else, it was a confidence-builder for this team."
Most of the participants say that result means nothing now.
"I don't remember anything about that series. Last year doesn't matter," O'Neal said.
"They were great," Popovich recalled of the Lakers with a pained smile. "That's a long time ago, that's the first time it's gone through my head in six months. It's really not a factor, this is a different team."
Said Jackson: "They have new personnel, they rebuilt their team. If they had the same team, it would matter."
The Spurs have six first-year players on their roster including three new starters 19-year-old point guard Tony Parker, defensive stalwart Bruce Bowen and veteran Steve Smith.
"They beat us, they beat us bad. It was embarrassing," San Antonio's Malik Rose said. "The third quarters of those last couple games were pretty bad. I didn't want to be out there."
Listed at 6-foot-7 and 255 pounds, Rose figures to be one of several Spurs trying to guard the 7-1, 330-pound O'Neal a chore Robinson usually handles for the most part.
"He's the most dominating player in the league," Rose said. "I'll try to stay between him and the basket, not let him get easy buckets."
Said Duncan: "Honestly, Malik does a great job of playing Shaq. Nobody can stop him, it's a matter of slowing him down."
Popovich said he hadn't decided who would start against O'Neal, saying the 48 entire minutes were much more important than how the game began.
O'Neal said the absence of Robinson wouldn't make a major difference to him.
"They're probably going to double and triple like they always do," he said. "We just have to be patient. I'm going to do what I do best try to find the open man. We match up against this team pretty well."
When asked what was different from last year's series against the Spurs, O'Neal replied: "The only difference is we have homecourt advantage."
The Lakers enter today's game having won 17 straight at Staples Center including a 96-95 victory over the Spurs on March 31.
"They're two-time defending champs, they swept us last year," said Duncan, who's had to deal with the recent death of his father. "We're going to have to play well, with or without [Robinson].
"We know we can win."


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