Published April 28, 2013
LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles Lakers gave away thousands of white towels to their fans Sunday, and the unintended symbolism became devastatingly appropriate.
The Lakers started the season with a loaded roster and championship aspirations. They finished with Kobe Bryant leaning on crutches and Dwight Howard getting ejected while their patchwork lineup staggering through one last blowout loss.
Wave the white flag. Throw in the towel. The Lakers' tumultuous season is finally finished.
Tony Parker scored 23 points, Kawhi Leonard and DeJuan Blair added 13 apiece, and the San Antonio Spurs completed their first-round sweep with a 103-82 victory in Game 4.
San Antonio never trailed in the clincher, leading by 25 points in one more businesslike effort against the seventh-seeded Lakers, who provided their usual drama right down to their last gasp.
In his final game before unrestricted free agency, Howard scored seven points before getting tossed early in the third quarter for arguing. Pau Gasol scored 16 points for the Lakers, who were swept from the postseason for the second time in three years despite a late courtside appearance by Bryant, who cheered on his teammates until the final buzzer.
"It's like a nightmare," Howard said. "It's like a bad dream we couldn't wake up out of. That's what it felt like. It seemed like nothing could go right from the start."
The 16-time NBA champion Lakers had high hopes for this season after landing Howard and Nash to play alongside Bryant and Gasol, but their hopes disappeared in an avalanche of injuries, losing streaks and turmoil. They made a 28-12 surge late in the regular season, but lost Bryant on the way — along with any chance of keeping up with the smooth, veteran Spurs, who finished Los Angeles with back-to-back wins by more than 20 points at Staples Center.
Starters Bryant, Steve Nash and Metta World Peace sat out the finale with injuries, while Gasol and Howard played with pain. Coach Mike D'Antoni had just nine available players in uniform when Howard got himself kicked out of the game after taking just two shots in 20 minutes.
The All-Star center, furious with the Spurs' unpunished physical play, yelled a few parting words at the court after walking past general manager Mitch Kupchak in the tunnel to the locker room. Afterward, Howard said he must "do a better job of keeping my cool."
"I hate it for him," D'Antoni said. "He gets banged up so much in there that I'm sure he didn't mean to (get ejected), but he takes a pounding, and after a while, I guess his nerves were shot."
Moments later, Bryant got the solemn Lakers crowd on its feet when he hobbled out of the tunnel to a seat behind the Lakers' bench, making his first appearance at courtside since tearing his Achilles tendon 16 days ago. Bryant, who might not be healthy by the start of next season, repeatedly yelled instructions and encouragement at the Lakers' young backcourt, Andrew Goudelock and Darius Morris, and fill-in starter Earl Clark.
The Lakers went down hard against the Spurs, but they appeared to stick together.
"It's been a very challenging season, but we've done our best," said Gasol, who got a late standing ovation from fans who realize he also might be gone in the fall. "We've done our best and fought our way through it. ... We pretty much didn't have a chance against the Spurs, but we still fought. We stayed together, and that's the thought I will keep for the future."
Tim Duncan had 11 points and six rebounds for the second-seeded Spurs, who will face the winner of Denver's series with Golden State in the second round. They'll get plenty of rest after flattening the Lakers, who took back-to-back home defeats without three regular starters in their first opening-round exit since 2007.
"Obviously, it wasn't a fair fight," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "When you're a competitor, you want to compete on an even basis, and the Lakers weren't able to do that. ... Even though it wasn't a fair fight, we still want to win the series, and I'm glad we did. Our focus was great."
After Duncan led the Spurs' blowout in Game 3, Parker took the lead in the clincher, scoring 15 points in the first half while exploiting the Lakers' hastily assembled lineup. Los Angeles' top four guards are out with injuries, including backups Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks, and Parker was merciless against third-stringers.
"It was just a weird feeling," Parker said. "Obviously, I am happy we won, but it was just weird. They were missing a lot of guys, so we're just happy to go to the next round."
San Antonio trailed for fewer than five combined minutes in the four-game series, grinding out points and defensive stops with the steady professionalism of Popovich's best teams.
The Spurs seamlessly replaced injured starting center Tiago Splitter in Game 4 with Australian rookie Aron Baynes, who had six points and played decent defense in his first NBA start.
The Spurs had control of this series from the start: They posted two methodical victories at home before sending the Lakers to their biggest home playoff defeat in their long franchise history in Game 3, 120-89. The clincher was more of the same, with the Lakers unable to mount enough teamwork to challenge the smooth Spurs.
"You can't expect to come in and have instant success against a team like that, especially since we haven't even been playing," said Goudelock, who scored 14 points. "We basically threw a team together, threw us out there, and, 'Go play.' So, tough circumstances, but I think we all learned a lot from it. I think we'll all be better from it."
NOTES: Splitter has a sprained ankle and is out indefinitely, although his teammates think he can return during the second round. F Boris Diaw practiced with contact this weekend in his comeback from a back injury. ... The Lakers faced an 0-3 series deficit for the eighth time in franchise history — and for the eighth time, they were swept. ... Jack Nicholson and Lil Wayne watched at courtside, but both left early in the fourth quarter.