Defending NBA champs on playoff precipice

By Mike Monroe

DALLAS — First, the Spurs fell, a 61-win No. 1 seed ousted in the first round of the NBA’s Western Conference playoffs.

Soon, the West’s No. 2 seed, the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, may join them as idled observers, a legendary coach sent to early retirement in the process.

Dallas has a 3-0 lead in the best-of-7 Western Conference semifinals series that resumes today at American Airlines Center.

The Lakers are the 99th team in NBA history to face such a daunting deficit, defiance seemingly their final refuge. The first 98, after all, failed to overcome. But Lakers star Kobe Bryant insisted he has no doubt his team can be the first, starting with today’s game, and issued a warning to any teammate that might not share the belief.

“I’m going to keep this train moving,” he said, “so you’re either going to be on it, or in front of it. But the train will keep moving.”

The Mavericks have outscored the Lakers in the fourth quarter of each of the first three games because they have kept Bryant from dominating. In the final five minutes of Dallas’ 98-92 Game 3 victory, Bryant missed all four of the shots he attempted and committed two turnovers.

Meanwhile, center Andrew Bynum, on the brink of a breakout game after scoring 21 points through the first 3??1/2 quarters, did not touch the ball.

“The last five minutes is when I go to work,” Bryant explained, “and I didn’t the last game. I’ve got to get the ball and make those plays.”

Lakers coach Phil Jackson has hinted all season that he will retire at season’s end, whenever that may be. Veteran Lakers such as Bryant and Derek Fisher, starters on the five Lakers teams Jackson has coached to NBA titles, don’t want to get swept and have that be Jackson’s final experience.

“It means more to myself and Derek than anybody else on this team, the history that we have,” Bryant said, “but you try not to think of that. You just try to think of the game.”

In a pre-practice meeting, Jackson told his players to forget about him and any legacy issues, then fell back on a longtime playoff ploy: Complaining about the officiating, hoping the referees working today’s game will notice.

Jackson said his All-Star power forward, Pau Gasol, has struggled in the first three games of the series because defenders are breaking a rule.

“I’ve resisted this the whole playoffs, but the NBA used to call it ‘knee up the butt,’?” Jackson said. “You couldn’t lift your knee off the floor to run a guy off the post. They’re doing it every time. They’re taking him out of the post so he can’t get a post-up.

“We didn’t complain about it against New Orleans, but the Mavs are doing the same damn thing. So we’re kind of resigned that they’re not going to change the rules. .?.?. I mean go back to what they used to have as a rule.”

Meanwhile, the Mavericks quietly go about their business of making the two-time defending champions look old, and in the way.

“We’re up against an opponent that’s very experienced and has got a lot of weapons,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “We’ve got to stay on task.

“I feel like they’re going to play better, and we’ll have to play better, too.”

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