It’s the Spurs…

Well, at least the Lakers know their way around San Antonio.

And really, doesn’t it seem fitting the road back to the NBA Finals would pass through the Spurs, who dispatched of the up-and-coming New Orleans Hornets Monday night 91-80 in Game 7 of their Western Conference semifinal match-up to advance to the Western Conference Finals, which begin Wednesday night in Los Angeles.

For the sixth time since 1999, the Lakers and Spurs will meet in the playoffs. During that same span, at least one of them has appeared in eight of the nine NBA Finals, with the Spurs winning in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007 and the Lakers taking three straight titles from 2000-2002.

But while the Spurs have largely remained intact, the Lakers have been disassembled and reconstructed. The only players on the Lakers roster who played in their last playoff meeting with the Spurs in 2004 are Kobe Bryant, Luke Walton and Derek Fisher.

This season, the teams split their four games with each team winning the two games on its home court. Only one of the four games was played after Pau Gasol was traded to the Lakers. The Lakers blew San Antonio out 106-85 on April 13, though it should be noted the Spurs were without 6th Man of the Year, Manu Ginobili, who was resting a leg injury before the playoffs.

“I think for them it’s just about playing together,” Kobe Bryant said of the Spurs. “They’ve been playing together for so many years, they know how to execute and stay within themselves. That’s really the key.”

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Ariza cleared

Lakers forward Tervor Ariza, who has been sidelined for almost four months with a broken foot, has been cleared to resume all basketball activities, though no specific timetable has been set for his return to the lineup.

Ariza practiced with the team Tuesday and felt fine afterwards, but coach Phil Jackson said he wasn’t sure how long it would take the fourth-year forward to shake off the rust from the long layoff and earn a spot back in the rotation.

Ariza, a defensive specialist, had been averaging 5.5 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.3 assists before he was injured on January 21.

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Facts and Figures

I came across a couple interesting stats today. According to Stats LLC, when the Lakers lead a playoff series 2-0, they are 35-1. The only time the Lakers have won the first two games of a series, then lost was 1968-69, when they lost to the Celtics in seven games.

Also, when the Jazz trails a playoff series, 0-2, it is 1-9 alltime. Recent history is a bit more kind. Utah beat the 2006-07 Rockets in seven games after trailing 0-2.

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Kobe Bryant is unanimous All-NBA team

Kobe Bryant added another honor Thursday to go with his MVP award, becoming the only unanimous selection to the All-NBA team.

The Lakers star was voted to the first team for the third straight season and sixth time in his career. He led Los Angeles to the best record in the Western Conference and was presented with the MVP trophy Wednesday before helping the Lakers to a 120-110 victory over Utah in Game 2 of the conference semifinals.

Joining Bryant on the first team were New Orleans guard Chris Paul, who was three votes shy of being a unanimous pick, along with Boston’s Kevin Garnett, Cleveland’s LeBron James and Orlando center Dwight Howard.

Garnett was a first-team pick for the fourth time and James made his second appearance. Paul and Howard were first-timers.

Voting was done by a panel of 127 sports writers and broadcasters, with points being awarded on a 5-3-1 basis.

Amare Stoudemire and Steve Nash of Phoenix were voted to the second team along with San Antonio’s Tim Duncan, Utah guard Deron Williams and Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki. The third team consisted of Houston’s Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, plus Utah’s Carlos Boozer, Boston’s Paul Pierce and the Spurs’ Manu Ginobili, the league’s top sixth man.

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Did you know?

That Kobe Bryant sent Derek Fisher a series of encouraging text messages last year when he heard about Fisher’s youngest daughter Tatum being diagnosed with eye cancer.

“I just said, ‘Go at them,’ ” Bryant said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune last year. ” ‘Just go out there and go at them and do what you do best.’ I’m sure he got that and understood exactly where I was coming from because we’re cut from the same cloth.”

“It made us all stop, just completely stop,” Bryant said. “It was very difficult at first. But he gave us the good news the following day about the surgery being successful and that he was going to be able to be there [for the game].”

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Jazz owner won’t attend Game 4

Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller told the Salt Lake Tribune Wednesday that he won’t attend Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals on Sunday due to religious reasons.

The Jazz haven’t played a home playoff game on a Sunday since 2000, or even a home game on Sunday since 2001.

Miller is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which admonishes its members to avoid non-religious activities on Sundays if at all possible. He told the Tribune:

“About 15 years ago, I decided [going to Sunday games] just didn’t fit with what I wanted to be. It’s just a personal thing.”

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Lakers 120, Jazz 110

It’s official, the Lakers have a 2-0 series lead.

That was almost a must heading into the Salt Lake City portion of this Western Conference semifinal series, because of how good the Jazz are at home. During the regular season, Utah was a league-best 37-4 at home

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Kobe’s MVP shirts already hot sellers…

It’s only been official for 24 hours now, but the NBAStore.com began selling a Kobe Bryant 2008 NBA MVP tee shirt and they are flying off the virtual shelves.

Since January, the Lakers have been the best selling team on NBAStore.com and the NBA Store in NYC. Since the beginning of the 2008 NBA Playoffs, sales of Lakers merchandise on NBAStore.com and at the NBA Store in NYC have had a combined triple digit sales increase vs. the same period last year. Since the beginning of the Playoffs, Kobe Bryant has been the best selling player at both stores.

Just how important is the Lakers success to the NBA?

The NBA Store on Fifth Avenue and NBAStore.com had their best April ever with a sales increase of 22% vs. last year. For the month of April, sales of 2008 NBA Playoffs and 2008 Division Championship merchandise at the NBA Store and NBAStore.com increased 90% vs. last year.

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Bynum will be re-examined in 3-4 weeks

Another day, another doctor, another opinion for Lakers center Andrew Bynum, but still no closer to a resolution or even a clear timetable on his rehabilitation from a dislocated knee which has kept him out of action since January 13.

According to a Lakers spokesman, Bynum saw Dr. Steven Gecha, an orthopedic specialist in Princeton, N.J. on Wednesday and was told that there has “been some improvement” in the knee, but the plan going forward is to re-examine him in 3-4 weeks and then determine the next step.

That next step could be an exploratory arthroscopic surgery. But for now, the only plan is to wait and see how things look in 3-4 weeks.

That timeline essentially rules out any return this season, which has pretty much been expected for weeks.

“He’s got a long career ahead of him and we don’t want him to risk anything,” Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic said of Bynum. “He’s young and he’s going to be the most dominant center in the league for the next 10 to 15 years so he’s got to take his time.”

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