- The Washington Times - Monday, May 10, 2004

LOS ANGELES — Gary Payton swears he didn’t have anything to prove.

Maybe so, but there’s no doubt he had some extra incentive.

A day after expressing frustration and anger with his teammates, coaching staff and the media, Payton played his best game of the playoffs. And so did the Los Angeles Lakers, routing San Antonio 105-81 yesterday to cut the Spurs’ lead to 2-1 in the Western Conference semifinals.

Game 4 will be played tomorrow night at Staples Center, with Game 5 Thursday night in San Antonio.

Tony Parker shredded the Lakers for 50 points and 14 assists in leading the Spurs to a pair of 10-point victories to begin the series.

Payton shouldered much of the blame.

“I know I can play basketball — I’ve played it for 14 years. I know what’s going on,” said the 35-year-old point guard, who had 15 points and seven assists and helped limit Parker to eight points and five assists.

“Today we made a conscious effort to focus on [Parker]. I don’t really go back and say, ‘I told you so,‘“Payton said. “We came back and played a good game today. Everybody did a good job on defense. We knew we needed a win. We came out and played the way we’re supposed to.”

Facing a must-win situation, Shaquille O’Neal dominated the inside and the Lakers made life miserable for Parker and superstar teammate Tim Duncan, who scored 54 points in the first two games.

Duncan shot 4-for-14 for 10 points and committed six turnovers, and Parker was 4-for- 12 and had three turnovers — one more than his total in the first two games.

“I know they’re going to try and get Tony and Tim back in the game,” Payton said of Game 4. “Tuesday, if we’re to win, it’s a whole different series. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish right now.”

O’Neal had 28 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and eight blocked shots; Kobe Bryant added 22 points, six rebounds and six assists, and Karl Malone had 13 points, six rebounds and five assists for the Lakers, who shot 56.9 percent.

“We knew what we had to do today,” O’Neal said. “We really didn’t ever lose confidence; we just did not take care of the basketball and we let two games slip away. Today, we played good defense and shot the ball well.”

Only seven NBA teams have come back to win a best-of-7 series after losing the first two games. But no team has ever prevailed after losing the first three — a fact the Lakers knew only too well.

The loss snapped San Antonio’s 17-game winning streak — the last 11 of the regular season and the first six of the playoffs. The Spurs had also won eight straight postseason games dating to the NBA Finals against New Jersey last June.

“It happened,” Duncan said. “It’s about how we respond to the loss, what we learn, how we adjust.”

Lakers coach Phil Jackson said his team decided to plug the lane and give up the 3-point shot.

The strategy worked, even though the Spurs shot 11 of 27 from 3-point range.

“We were a little more aggressive screen roll-wise,” Jackson said. “As a result, there wasn’t a whole lot of opportunity.”

Especially for Parker.

“The [defensive] help came faster,” Parker said. “They played better defense, but I think the key is, we didn’t match their energy.”

Manu Ginobili scored 17 points and fellow reserve Devin Brown added 16 for the Spurs, who shot 34.1 percent and committed 21 turnovers — two less than their total in the first two games.

Duncan also had 13 rebounds to lead his team to a 45-41 advantage in that department.

“Los Angeles really dismantled us,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “They did a great job, they were very aggressive from the get-go, executed well.”

The Lakers took command by outscoring the Spurs 18-5 for a 68-45 lead late in the third quarter.

It was 75-58 entering the final period. The Spurs scored five straight points to draw within 12, but the Lakers scored the next 10 to clinch the victory.

Bryant made 3-pointers to start and finish a 12-0 run in the first that gave the Lakers a 19-8 lead, and they were on top the rest of the way. The Lakers had assists on 11 of their 12 baskets in the first quarter, and led 42-32 at halftime.

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