By Bryan Williams
April 30 -- While it's the Lakers-Kings strife that has generated all the buzz and intrigue since the teams' epic matchup in the 2002 Western Conference Finals, it is L.A.'s meetings with the San Antonio Spurs that have provided the substance -- four playoff series in five years, each of them determining the eventual NBA champion.
The trend continues this postseason as the Spurs and Lakers square off in the conference semifinals for the third consecutive year, and there's no doubt the winner will immediately become a heavy favorite for the title. But before examining how the teams compare going into Sunday's Game 1 at the SBC Center (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC), here's a refresher on their increasingly contentious recent history:
2003 Conference Semifinals: Spurs 4, Lakers 2
In the first Spurs-Lakers series of the post-Bulls era to go beyond five games, each team held serve on its home floor through Game 5 before San Antonio took its 3-2 lead into Staples Center for Game 6 and closed out L.A. with a dominating 110-82 victory. It was the three-time defending-champion Lakers' first playoff series loss since the 1999 conference semis when they were swept by ... the Spurs.
was typically dominant, averaging 28.0 ppg, 11.8 rpg and 4.8 apg to lead the Spurs, but it was their deadly perimeter shooting that frustrated the Lakers time and again. Shooting a stratospheric .473 from 3-point range as a team, the San Antonio offense was bolstered by Bruce Bowen
's 17-of-26 (.654) and rookie Emanuel Ginobili
's 8-of-13 (.615).
2002 Conference Semifinals: Lakers 4, Spurs 1
Even though the Lakers in this series were no force offensively -- only Kobe Bryant
(26.2 ppg) and Shaquille O'Neal
(21.4 ppg) averaged more than 10 points -- they still cruised past the Spurs in five games. Duncan was a monster (29.0 ppg, 17.2 rpg), but San Antonio was simply overmatched. David Robinson
missed two full games due to a back injury and was ineffective when he tried to play, scoring a total of 18 points. And Tony Parker
, the team's starting point guard, was just a 19-year-old rookie making his first postseason appearance.
2001 Conference Finals: Lakers 4, Spurs 0
The Spurs were not in exclusive company after losing 4-0 to L.A. in the conference finals; the Lakers were unstoppable throughout the 2001 playoffs, sweeping every series on their way to the NBA Finals before beating the Philadelphia 76ers in five games to finish the postseason with a remarkable 15-1 record.
Bryant was an all-around superstar against San Antonio, posting 33.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg and 7.0 apg, and O'Neal added 27.0 ppg and 13.0 rpg of his own. Meanwhile, Derek Fisher couldn't miss from the outside, scoring 17.5 ppg on .614 shooting, including 15-of-20 (.750) 3-pointers. The Lakers' utter dismantling of the Spurs was evident in the teams' average points per game on the series: 103.5 to 81.3, a plus-21.8 ppg advantage for L.A.
1999 Conference Semifinals: Spurs 4, Lakers 0
Compared to the 2001 Lakers, the 1999 Spurs were almost equally dominant in the postseason, going 15-2 overall and sweeping both L.A. and Portland en route to the championship. The intrigue surround the matchup in the middle between Robinson and O'Neal, but that also left the Lakers ill-equipped to handle Duncan. L.A. power forwards J.R. Reid and Robert Horry
couldn't stop the second-year star as Duncan led San Antonio with 29.0 ppg and 10.8 rpg.
In 2004, however, both teams have undergone dramatic roster overhauls compared to their last postseason meeting. The All-Star mainstays are there -- Duncan, O'Neal and Bryant -- but the Lakers added Gary Payton
and Karl Malone
, while the Spurs lost Robinson and brought in the likes of Rasho Nesterovic
, Hedo Turkoglu
and L.A. defector Horry.
During the regular season, Los Angeles took three games out of four, but all three of those games came during the opening five weeks of the year, before the Spurs really hit their stride and when the Lakers were laying waste to all comers. San Antonio was also missing both Duncan and Parker for L.A.'s 120-117 double-overtime win on Nov. 6.
The teams' most recent matchup -- a 95-89 Spurs win on April 4 -- may be the best indicator of the competition to come. Both squads were fully healthy and in the midst of long winning streaks heading into the season's final days. Among the key subplots that emerged:
Bryant vs. Bowen: Spurs swingman Bruce Bowen is renowned as one of the top perimeter defenders in the league, finishing fourth in the voting for Defensive Player of the Year. He'll once again be assigned the task of guarding Kobe Bryant, who scored 28 points on April 4 but was harrassed by Bowen into 9-of-26 from the field. San Antonio will only benefit from such low-percentage shooting.
Parker's pick and roll: The Spurs exposed the Lakers' slow rotations on defense -- particularly Shaq's -- again and again on April 4, running pick and rolls with Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. If the interior defender steps out to pick up Parker, either Duncan has a mismatch and an easy score or Parker can drive to the basket; if not, Parker can bury the jumper. San Antonio's point guard finished with 29 points and nine assists in the game.
Payton in the post: Parker's disadvantage, however, comes against Gary Payton defensively. Payton isn't as quick as Parker, but he is bigger and stronger and is one of the most dangerous post-up point guards in the NBA. On April 4, GP scored 21 points on 7-of-11 shooting and even showed his edge inside by grabbing eight rebounds.
In addition, the first round of the playoffs brought further developments:
Rejuvenated Malone: Karl Malone stepped up big against Houston, ranking second only to Bryant with 18.0 ppg while averaging double-digit rebounds (10.4 rpg). The Spurs will have better defenders (Duncan, Horry) to put on him than the Rockets did, but the Mailman is clearly hungry.
Big Shot Rob: Meanwhile, Robert Horry, a Laker for more than six years, is up to his old playoff tricks for the Spurs, knocking down big shot after big shot to stifle Memphis runs and reclaim momentum. Coming off the bench, he ranked third behind Duncan and Parker with 11.0 ppg, hit 16-of-26 from the field (.615) and added 8.3 boards per game for good measure.
And thus do these old -- though quiet -- rivals, responsible for the NBA's last five titles, meet again in the postseason. San Antonio assistant coach Mario Elie, a player on the 1999 Spurs squad, best summed up the stakes.
"It's just the way it's meant to be," he told the San Antonio Express-News. "You're going to have challenges and this is a great challenge. I feel, in my heart, that whoever wins this series is going to win the championship."