NBA at 75: When the Spurs end the Lakers’ dynasty and start their own

Los Angeles Lakers, NBA at 75, San Antonio Spurs

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The 2003 Los Angeles Lakers were on the verge of further cementing their dynasty — until Tim Duncan and the small-market San Antonio Spurs put an end to it.

When the NBA and ABA merged in the 1976-77 season, the San Antonio Spurs were not yet 10 years old, still establishing themselves in one of the smallest markets in professional basketball. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Lakers were entering their 29th season as a franchise with six championships already on their resume.

From then on, every postseason for 46 straight years featured at least one of the two legendary franchises — a streak that finally ended in 2022. That span included several titanic clashes between all-time greats and heart-stopping moments that thrilled basketball audiences worldwide.

I was just 11 years old when the Spurs finally broke through to claim their first NBA title in 1999, sweeping through the Lakers in the process. That moment will forever be ingrained in my memory. I recall flipping through the news stations to watch the coverage until well past midnight, then going shopping the next day for championship gear from knock-off pop-up tents around the neighborhood.

With Tim Duncan now in town, I was certain there were going to be more nights like this very soon.

Then Kobe Bryant happened.

Considerably more mature and polished than he was in 1999, Bryant went on to torch everyone in his path as the Lakers knocked out San Antonio in the 2001 and 2002 playoffs, dropping just one game in the process. Paired with Shaquille O’Neal and complemented by pieces like Robert Horry and Derek Fisher, Bryant’s Lakers were unstoppable for three straight seasons.

The Lakers went 181-65 in the regular season during their dominant threepeat from 2000-2002, and that was before they even flipped their playoff switch. It was a frustrating time for Spurs fans everywhere who knew the roster had enough to capture another Larry O’Brien trophy but just couldn’t get past the dynamic duo.

Comments from Lakers Head Coach Phil Jackson that the Spurs’ only championship “deserved an asterisk” also didn’t help ease the pain of continually coming up short to the Lake Show. The playoff rivalry between the Spurs and Lakers was in danger of disintegrating in 2003, as it’s tough to call anything a rival if only one team ever comes out on top.

Los Angeles had gotten the better of the Alamo City in six of eight playoff series since first clashing in 1982, and another series loss despite having homecourt advantage and the reigning back-to-back NBA MVP would certainly be the worst one of them all. That MVP, as it turned out, would not be denied again.

San Antonio Spurs

Tim Duncan (Photo by: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Tim Duncan was too good for absolutely everyone in 2003

It’s hard to do Tim Duncan’s 2003 season justice by just listing out stats. Sure, his 23 points, 13 boards, and three blocks per game were elite, but it’s how methodically dominant he played that was truly special.

That season was The Big Fundamental in his prime, and what a prime it was. After leading San Antonio to the league’s best record of 60-22, he bumped his numbers even higher in the playoffs, evolving round by round into one of the greatest forces the game has ever seen.

The Spurs were tested in the first round of the playoffs by the Phoenix Suns, a six-game series in which Duncan put up a cool 18.7 points, 16.0 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks per game. When it came to the Western Conference Semifinals matchup with the Lakers, it was essentially two superstars against one superstar and two rising talents.

The two sides traded powerful punches through the first four games, each protecting home court to make it a 2-2 tie heading into a critical Game 5.

San Antonio Spurs

Robert Horry (Jeff Gross /Allsport)

A single shot proves the Spurs were destined to topple L.A.

Dynasties don’t die easily, and Kobe Bryant wasn’t about to let his squad start heading in that direction without a fight in Game 5. With the Spurs leading by 22 in the final minute of the third quarter, all indications pointed to a cruising victory for the Silver and Black and a 3-2 series lead heading to Los Angeles.

As he so often did, Bryant then exploded, mounting a furious comeback that gave the Lakers a shot to win the game in the closing seconds with a made 3. Famous for not passing the ball as often as he should, it was Bryant’s competitive nature and shot-making that allowed for the comeback in the first place.

Blanketed in the final possession by defensive star Bruce Bowen, Bryant dished a pass to the deadliest clutch shooter in NBA history, Robert Horry. Big Shot Bob had already established himself as a knockdown shooter in the most pressure-packed situations, and he had a wide-open look he normally makes in his sleep.

I remember my heart beating through my chest when the shot was released, and it definitely stopped once the shot went three-quarters of the way into the net before popping out.

Horry would go on to hit several more clutch shots over his decorated career, including the single biggest shot in San Antonio Spurs history. This particular rim-out set the stage for the Spurs to go into Los Angeles with renewed intensity and determination to not allow another let-up. On this day in 2003, they did exactly that.

San Antonio Spurs

Shaquille O’Neal, Derek Fisher, Robert Horry (JAMES NIELSEN/AFP via Getty Images)

Tim Duncan and the Spurs end the Lakers’ dynasty, start their own

With their chance at a four-peat on the line, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant did all they could to postpone the inevitable, but no team in the world was going to stop Tim Duncan’s quest in Game 6.

Using his entire arsenal of post moves, hook shots, and mid-range jumpers, Duncan was a man possessed no matter who was in front of him — even if that someone was 7-foot-1 and 325 pounds.

“This is a clinic,” said Bill Walton during a fourth-quarter blitz by San Antonio. “How many players have played this well ever?”

By the end of the onslaught that saw the Spurs outscore the Lakers 32-13 in the final frame, Duncan had tallied 37 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, and two blocks in a masterpiece performance.

As the sun set on the Lakers’ dynasty, Derek Fisher and Kobe Bryant could only look on from the bench with tears forming in their eyes as they realized their time atop the league was finally ending. It would be the last championship Kobe and Shaq would win together, although they’d enjoy title success later in their careers.

San Antonio Spurs

Tony Parker Tim Duncan Manu Ginobili (ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

The Spurs’ dynasty is validated by their biggest rivals

Although San Antonio ended up winning five titles in 15 seasons and had 50+ regular-season wins every year from 1999 to 2017, their lack of a repeat title has given ammo to many who want to discredit their dominant run. “You can’t have a dynasty if you don’t even repeat once,” I’ve heard a few times, often from Lakers fans.

The thing is, both Kobe and Shaq have publicly referred to the Spurs as a dynasty on more than one occasion. As a duo that won three consecutive titles, I think their opinion probably carries a bit more weight than Twitter user LakerzFan4Lyfe.

When the Spurs finally stopped the Lakers’ train in its tracks, it was a win for small markets everywhere and just the beginning of what would turn out to be one of the most tremendous streaks of consistency in professional sports.

The Spurs-Lakers rivalry was finally established on that day, and what a rivalry it was.

Check out more reflections in our NBA at 75 series and subscribe to The Whiteboard to make sure you keep up with all our latest NBA news and analysis.

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