Spurs' four-game sweep puts paid to Lakers' season
Gift to fans becomes symbolic of surrendered championship aspirations as their patchwork team stagger through one last blowout loss
The Los Angeles Lakers gave away thousands of white towels to their fans, 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 line-up staggered 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 four.
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 the Staples Centre.
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 centre, 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. 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 realise he also might be gone in autumn.
"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. The sweep gives the Spurs plenty of time to rest before a second-round clash with either Denver or Golden State.