On Friday night, the two most successful NBA franchises of the post-Jordan era clashed once again, although the term “clashed” is loosely used here, as the only thing left to remember the great Lakers teams of the 2000’s is a withered down Kobe Bryant.
The dominance of these two teams started right away, as they combined to win the first five championships after the Bulls dynasty ended.
The Lakers used the freak athleticism of their two stars, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, to intimidate and destroy their opponents. The Spurs used a recipe of strong defense and inside play that relied on the twin towers, Tim Duncan and David Robinson.
The first playoff battles resulted in a sweep, as the Spurs coasted by the Lakers and the still developing Kobe Bryant on their way to the franchise’s first championship. It was a Tim Duncan show for all four games, with The Big Fundamental averaging 29.0 points per game at the young age of 22.
The Lakers fired back two years later. Kobe and Shaq were playing off of each other better and ever, a combination of two athletic players that was impossible to keep up with for a Spurs team that had five players 34 and older on the roster. Even with a few new arrivals the next year, they were only able to get one game on the Lakers, who would finish out their “threepeat” after wiping out San Antonio again.
Nov 14, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) and San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (21) react at Staples Center. The Spurs defeated the Lakers 93-80. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The Lakers had gained a reputation as a road block for the Spurs by the time the 2003 playoffs came around. Tim Duncan played some of the best basketball of his career, and with the backing of a young Tony Parker and a rookie Manu Ginobili, the Spurs were able to take the Lakers down in a 4-2 series, becoming the first team to beat Los Angeles in a playoff series since 1999. Like the Lakers had done in previous years, the Spurs went on to win an NBA championship after being victorious in the series.
2004 would be the last time the Spurs had to face the iconic Lakers duo, a series in which they fell 4-2. But with the departure of Shaquille O’Neal, it would be another four years before the Lakers built another team that could do damage in the playoffs.
The ever going war continued in 2008, as the title-defending Spurs clashed against a rising Lakers team that was under the leadership of Kobe Bryant, now a veteran sporting the number 24. The Spurs, on the other hand, were more complicated. Tony Parker was entering his prime and Ginobili was right at his peak, but the rest of the team was aging. 11 of the players who played in the series for the Spurs were at least thirty years old, and four of them were 35+. The Lakers took the series 4-2.
March 19, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers centerPau Gasol
(16) moves to the basket against San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (21) during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
In the years afterwards, it began to look like the Lakers were going to win the war between the two Western Conference power houses. The Lakers were able to pull out consecutive championships again in 2009 and 2010, and the Spurs began to lose to the same franchises they’d been eliminating in the playoffs during their great run. Analysts begin to count them out year after year, even while other franchises attempted to emulate their success strategies.
In 2013, the Spurs played the Lakers for what may have very well been the last time of the Duncan era the two would be matched up in the playoffs. Kobe missed the end of the season with an Achilles injury, just one of the problems for the Lakers “Super Team” of Steve Nash, Kobe, and Dwight Howard. In a strange moment of irony, the Spurs, who were reputably old and fragile, overcame the Lakers with ease in part because they weren’t as durable.
Apr 28, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard (12) and San Antonio Spurs power forwardMatt Bonner
(15) have to be separated after a call in the first quarter of game four of the first round of the 2013 NBA playoffs at the Staples Center. Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard (12) was called for a technical foul. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
From there, things begin to slide downhill for the Lakers, as they fell out of playoff contention and Kobe’s years caught up to him. The Spurs left them in the dust and were able to win a championship in 2014, tying the Lakers championship total during the Kobe-Duncan era.
That leads us to today, where the Lakers are somewhat of a joke and the Spurs are struggling through an up and down season following their fifth championship, but still enjoy a great respect from the league and have the talent to win it all.
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The Lakers team the Spurs saw on Friday night in no way resembles the team that swept them in 2001, a roster of misfits and young players that looks just as poor on paper as it does on the court. They even wore the black alternate jerseys, as if Kobe’s recent season ending injury calls for a funeral of some sort.
We now live in a time where the Spurs are still considered candidates to win it all, and Duncan vs. Kobe arguments tend to lean towards The Big Fundamental. The Lakers may have won the majority of their playoff battles, but in the end the Spurs were able to accomplish at least just as much, and without the monumental collapse that followed it all.
Like all wars, there will always be casualties. Championship hopes were crushed on both sides throughout the brutal years, heated debates were launched about Duncan and Kobe, and fans exchanged low blows with each other. But in the end, one team is still competing for the championship, and the other is at the bottom of the standings, probably preparing to tank for a draft pick.
Perhaps, as Spurs fans will hope, the only way to truly seal it off is with a sixth NBA title.