And when the Lakers' tumultuous season finally collapsed Sunday night, the smooth Spurs rolled right past them to the second round.
Tony Parker scored 23 points, and San Antonio completed its first-round sweep of the injury-plagued Lakers with a 103-82 victory in Game 4.
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 staggered through back-to-back blowout losses at home 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."
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, Dwight Howard scored seven points before getting ejected early in the third quarter for arguing. Pau Gasol had 16 points for the Lakers, who were swept from the postseason for the second time in three years despite a late courtside appearance by Kobe Bryant on crutches.
"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."
Howard said the season was "like a nightmare. It's like a bad dream, and we just couldn't wake up from it. That's what it felt like."
The Los Angeles Lakers gave away thousands of white towels to their fans Sunday, and they acquired an unfortunate symbolism: In the final game of a season that began with championship aspirations, the Lakers couldn't keep up without injured starters Bryant, Steve Nash and Metta World Peace. They had just nine available players in uniform for the final minutes.
"I'm proud of them, because they fought," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. "It was kind of a year that was all upside-down, but I appreciate the effort to get us into the playoffs. We just didn't have it."
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 backcourt. Los Angeles' top four guards are out with injuries, including backups Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks, and Parker was merciless against third-stringers.
"What I was pleased about our team was that we kept our focus every night," Popovich said. "We played hard, followed the game plan and were very active and energetic every night, and sometimes that's hard to do when your opponent is wounded."
Kawhi Leonard and DeJuan Blair added 13 points apiece in the Spurs' balanced scoring effort. 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.
"This is a good start for us," Duncan said. "We like the pace we're at right now. We like the rhythm we're at right now, and how healthy we are right now. Hopefully it can stay that way."
After an unimpressive game featuring just two field goal attempts in 20 minutes, Howard was tossed with 9:51 left in the third quarter for his second technical foul. 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.
"I hate it for him," D'Antoni said, lamenting the lack of foul calls against players guarding Howard. "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 Staples Center 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 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.
There's almost no turbulence around the Spurs, who 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.
The Spurs have swept three of their last four playoff series, winning every game in the first two rounds last season before losing in six games to Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals. San Antonio is in the second round of the postseason for the fourth time in six seasons since their last championship in 2007.
NOTES: Gasol got a standing ovation when he left the game with 3:08 to play. The two-time NBA champion has one year left on his contract with the Lakers, but could be a trade chip in the Lakers' rebuild. ... 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.
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