Spurs’ subs trouble L.A.

By Jeff McDonald

LOS ANGELES – As soon Antonio McDyess walked into the Staples Center, the memory came flooding back.

The last time he was in the building, back in February, his tip-in at the buzzer helped the Spurs claim a one-point victory.

“I’ll probably remember that play for the rest of my life,” McDyess said.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich ensured McDyess would not get a chance to re-enact it Tuesday night.

Wary of the toll a season-ending back-to-back would take on his older players, Popovich rested four starters during a 102-93 Lakers victory, saving them for tonight’s game at Phoenix.

Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker joined the 36-year-old McDyess on the bench. Instead, Popovich started George Hill, Gary Neal, DeJuan Blair and Tiago Splitter alongside usual starter Richard Jefferson.

The Spurs nearly won anyway.

Kobe Bryant had 27 points and Lamar Odom scored 21 of his 23 in the second half, as the Lakers snapped their season-worst five-game losing streak in unsatisfying fashion. Not only did they struggle to pull away from the shorthanded Spurs until the fourth quarter, they might have lost oft-injured center Andrew Bynum for the start of the postseason with another knee injury.

“We came in with the mindset that we wanted to win,” Hill said. “We just came up short.”

Hoping to rest his regulars at some point during the season-ending road trip, but not wanting them to fall out of rhythm before the playoffs open Saturday or Sunday, Popovich made the choice to save 80 percent of his starting five for tonight’s finale at Phoenix.

It didn’t matter to Popovich that Tuesday’s defeat allowed Chicago to pull even in the race for the NBA’s top overall record (61-20), opening the door for home-court advantage in a potential Finals matchup to be decided by a 50-50 coin flip. The loss also ruined any chance the Spurs had of matching the franchise record of 63 wins, set in 2005-06, a pursuit that mattered even less to Popovich.

His focus, as always, remained on health and freshness, for the first round of the postseason.

“It makes more sense to play tomorrow than today,” Popovich said before the game. “Even if it was Phoenix tonight and the Lakers tomorrow, we’d end up sitting them.”

That explanation probably won’t satiate the conspiracy theorists, who will note Tuesday’s win ensured the Lakers (56-25) will finish no worse than third in the Western Conference, keeping the defending champions on the opposite side of the playoff bracket.

Before the game, Lakers coach Phil Jackson assumed all the normal Spurs would play to some extent.

“That’s what I would do,” Jackson said.

Instead, Popovich ran out a collection of subs, got double figures from six of them led by 16 from Neal, and nearly sent the Lakers to the depths of despair.

Popovich certainly looked wise to rest his stars early in the second quarter, when Bynum hobbled off with a hyperextended right knee. Bynum is scheduled for an MRI today, and will not accompany the Lakers to Sacramento for their season-ender.

The Spurs entered Tuesday’s game believing the Lakers’ problems to be overblown. Before tipoff, Popovich again called them the team to beat in the West.

“No one believes they suck,” Spurs forward Richard Jefferson said.

By trotting out a JV lineup, the Spurs gave the Lakers little opportunity to prove as much.

The Spurs led briefly in the fourth quarter, and the game was still tied at 83 with 5:55 to play.

The Lakers couldn’t begin to breathe easy until Bryant’s deep 3-pointer with 2:56 to go gave them a 96-88 lead. Moments later, Odom converted a bucket-and-a-foul, pushing L.A.’s edge to 11, its largest of the night.

“The Lakers were the Lakers at the end,” said Blair, who had 12 points and 11 rebounds for the Spurs.

The Lakers were not the Lakers for 3 ½ quarters, and that should add to the concerns about them more than the victory subtracts them.

“It got us out of our losing spin,” Jackson said. “So that’s OK.”

Popovich was proud enough of his team.

“We’re playing better than we were when we lost six in a row,” Popovich said, referring to a season-long losing streak that ended April 3. “That’s a good thing, I guess.”

Popovich still isn’t buying the latest rumors of the Lakers’ demise. They slumped before the All-Star break, only to win 17 of 18 after it. Last season, they went 12-10 after March 1, and still won the title.

Whatever is troubling the Lakers, Popovich said, “will fade away the very first night of the playoffs.”

On Tuesday, with the playoffs still in the future, the Lakers’ struggles were still front and center, compounded by Bynum’s injury. If all eyes were on the postseason, the Spurs won even in defeat.

Maybe this one wasn’t quite as fulfilling, or quite as memorable, as McDyess’ February tip-in. But it was close.

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