It was just the first game in a playoff series that may not end until May 19, but the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday looked a lot like a basketball team hoping for a merciful elimination.
Then again, why shouldn't they?
By anyone's definition, the 2003-04 NBA season has been a torture test for a Lakers team that once looked too good to be true.
Kobe Bryant's hop-scotching from courtroom to playing court, Shaquille O'Neal's litany of injuries, Gary Payton's constant nitpicking and Phil Jackson's bewildering "free me" facial expressions all add up to the world's most miserable fraternity of multimillionaires.
For all of their talent, it's a wonder the Lakers didn't break ranks and sail off in a dozen different directions months ago. You don't have to be a fly on the locker-room wall to see the dissension and unhappiness that marks this team. It's obvious in their play, their huddles, even their pregame handshakes.
As defending league champion San Antonio casually pulled away and won, 88-78, Sunday in the Western Conference semifinal opener, both teams almost seemed to be cooperating to achieve a common outcome in the fourth quarter.
If the Spurs' Tony Parker wasn't essentially trotting past Payton's defensive stance, the Lakers were piling up turnovers at roughly the same rate they scored points. The official count was 13-11, as in 13 points and 11 turnovers in the final quarter.
The Spurs' Tim Duncan made 40-year-old Karl Malone look old, slow and tired. Bryant wound up with 31 of the quietest points you'll ever see, and O'Neal might as well have been a 6-foot, 175-pound offensive presence in the lane. Most of the entry passes were picked off before O'Neal could get to them. But even the passes that got through led to precious little production.
"We were our own worst enemy," Jackson said.
The odds are that Jackson's team will execute better Wednesday in the second game. The series could go six or seven games.
But even if the Lakers survive to face either Minnesota or Sacramento in the conference finals, their NBA domination has finally run its course. The only remaining mystery is what will become of the primary performers when the end officially hits.
At age 32, O'Neal certainly won't play for many more years. He looks increasingly bored and worn down. Although he can still be impossible to guard for stretches, the legs that have supported a 300-pound frame for 11 pro seasons are going fast.
Bryant is still a young man physically, but you have to wonder whether he's strong enough mentally to remain the sport's most explosive player. And that's if he can get out of the trial without having to serve prison time. Whether or not he's found guilty of rape, his career and image have taken a battering.
Jackson, 58, with nine championships, long ago solidified his standing as one of the game's most successful coaches of all time. He has little left to prove -- and little interest in continuing to work in the circus-like atmosphere that has marked this season.
Payton, 35, made financial sacrifices to be a Laker but clearly has second-guessed the decision all along. He doesn't like the offensive system, the coach or his teammates. He'll retire or play somewhere else next season.
The preseason theory was that the additions of Malone and Payton would be more than enough to take the Lakers back to the top. In reality, they only made the team a lot older and more difficult to manage at a time when Bryant created a crisis that quickly upstaged jumpers and jams.
At their best -- the three straight titles from 2000 to '02 -- the Lakers were one of the best teams in NBA history. They were bigger than the league in which they played, giving pro basketball something to lean on after Michael Jordan and Chicago broke up.
But the magic in Los Angeles started to fade last season. Now, it's all but gone. Malone and Payton couldn't restore it. The team that looked too good to be true was just that.
Columnist Caulton Tudor can be reached at 829-8946 or firstname.lastname@example.org