LOS ANGELES - If the question was the Los Angeles Lakers' capability, if it was still in them, if they could stand shoulder-to-shoulder and do something dynamic over a single afternoon, then Game 3 of the NBA Western Conference semifinals settled it.
Shaquille O'Neal had 28 points, 15 rebounds and eight blocks, and Kobe Bryant drove a different-looking Lakers defense and Gary Payton returned to the series, all on an afternoon that was theirs almost from the start and ended, for all intents and purposes, sometime late in the third quarter.
The Spurs, who lost for the first time since March 23 - 18 games ago - lead the best-of-seven series 2-1. Game 4 is here tomorrow night, a 10:30 p.m. start Bryant will race back from Eagle, Colo., to make.
So, the Lakers had done what was required to push the Spurs, if just a little.
"I think everybody came here to see what Laker team was going to show up, how hard we were going to play," Bryant said. "And they got an answer."
They defended the Spurs' scorers - Tony Parker and Tim Duncan combined for just 18 points, and San Antonio's starters totaled 31 - they made their jump shots and they were more clever about finding O'Neal.
They pushed the Spurs' screen-and-roll to the sidelines, protected their own lane, asked Bryant to chase the ball rather than scold him for it and dared the Spurs to shoot, which they did, often, and missed, often. Open at the three-point arc, the Spurs were but 11 of 27.
At the end of it, most of the Lakers looked back over what they had done, over a 63-point second half, over a .569 field-goal percentage, over a defensive effort that was worthy of all of their defensive potential and beyond, perhaps, to what many believed their aging legs could carry them.
Parker was 4-for-12 from the field and Duncan was 4-for-14 as the Spurs matched their worst loss of the season. Bryant and Devean George left their defensive assignments to trap and double-team and hound the two. The Spurs shot 34.1 percent from the field, and the Lakers took 17 of the game's first 21 free throws.
"It's all about us," O'Neal said. "It's been all about us all year. The things that they're doing, they're not things we haven't seen before. They played well at home. They shot the ball well at home. Tony Parker had two great games at home. And now we're home. We just have to have two great games at home so we can get back into this series."
O'Neal made 11 of 13 shots and six of 11 free throws, the first time in two months he had attempted as many as 10 free throws a game. A happy O'Neal is a passing O'Neal, so he moved the ball, and the Lakers followed along. They assisted on 11 of 12 field goals in the first quarter and 29 of 37 overall.
Facing a possible 3-0 deficit - no team has ever come back from 3-0 - the Lakers went to O'Neal first and he had his most complete game this postseason. Bryant had 22 points - 15 in the first half - and made four of seven three-pointers. Payton had 15 points and seven assists.
"Well," Duncan said, "they were very aggressive out of the gate. I thought they played a very good game." Now, he said, "It's about how we respond to the loss, how we learn and adjust to what they're doing."
For the Lakers, it will be about sustaining what they started in Game 3. They led by 12 points in the first quarter, through two games a trouble spot for the Lakers, by 14 in the second and 23 in the third. By a carefree fourth quarter, the lead was 28 and the bench cleared.
Many of them had been there before. The Lakers won games 3 and 4 at home last year before a six-game elimination at the hands of the Spurs, and so they were largely unimpressed, other than that they had hoped to play well and, for a change, did.
"This was not their kind of a day and we know that," Jackson said of the Spurs. "We take solace in the fact we played with more intensity and more passion in this game and shot the ball better.
"It's nice to have that kind of margin, because doubt can be a factor, an insidious factor. But more than anything else, they've won a ton of games in a row and there's liable to be a letdown at some point ... We've won on our court. We have to repeat this on Tuesday night. The pressure is still on us."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
(Best of seven; *-if necessary)
Indiana vs. Miami
(Indiana leads series 2-0)
Game 1-Indiana 94, Miami 81
Game 2-Indiana 91, Miami 80
Today-at Miami, 8 p.m. Wednesday-at Miami, 8 p.m.
*Saturday-at Indiana, TBA *May 18-at Miami, 8 p.m.
*May 20-at Indiana, TBA
New Jersey vs. Detroit
(Detroit leads series 2-1)
Game 1-Detroit 78, New Jersey 56
Game 2-Detroit 95, New Jersey 80
Yesterday-New Jersey 82, Detroit 64
Tomorrow-at New Jersey, 8 p.m.
*Friday-at Detroit, TBA
*Next Sunday-at New Jersey, TBA
*May 20-at Detroit, TBA
Minnesota vs. Sacramento
(Series tied 1-1)
Game 1-Sacramento 104, Minnesota 98
Game 2-Minnesota 94, Sacramento 89
Today-at Sacramento, 10:30 p.m.
Wednesday-at Sacramento, 10:30 p.m.
Friday-at Minnesota, TBA
*Next Sunday-at Sacramento, 3:30 p.m.
*May 19-at Minnesota, TBA
L.A. Lakers vs. San Antonio
(San Antonio leads series 2-1)
Game 1-San Antonio 88, L.A. Lakers 78
Game 2-San Antonio 95, L.A. Lakers 85
Yesterday-L.A. Lakers 105, San Antonio 81
Tomorrow-at L.A. Lakers, 10:30 p.m.
*Thursday-at San Antonio, 8 p.m.
*Saturday-at L.A. Lakers, TBA
*May 19-at San Antonio, TBA