SAN ANTONIO — The San Antonio Spurs have returned to The Finals.

This ranks as the NBA's fifth-biggest story behind Kobe's desire to be traded, Kobe's hurt feelings, Kobe's indecision and Kobe's declaration that he wants to be a Laker for life.

Luckily, no one asked Kobe Bryant whom he would have chosen to replace Paul Wolfowitz at the World Bank. Otherwise, the Spurs wouldn't have cracked the top five.

A perverse symmetry is at work here. San Antonio won its first championship nine seasons ago. David Robinson barely had a chance to wipe the champagne from his brow in the post-game press conference before a reporter asked what the hiring of Phil Jackson would mean to the Lakers.

Now, San Antonio is positioned to claim its fourth title. The Spurs' embarrassingly easy 109-84 win over Utah in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals on Wednesday night secured that opportunity. And what is the story?

Kobe Bryant.

Maybe it's time we listen to Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. What is the first thing he says when asked the secret to San Antonio's success? OK, make that the second thing right after Tim Duncan.

Popovich answers that the Spurs are successful because the players and coaching staff have gotten over themselves.

If only we could get over the Lakers.

If only we could muster as much interest in a brilliant team as we do a petulant individual.

The Spurs are serious about what they do but refuse to take themselves seriously. That's a distinction lost on Bryant and many other stars in the league today.

San Antonio leaves the drama to others. They leave the Mavericks and Phoenix Suns to hope they can one day break the Spurs dominance. But for now, San Antonio methodically dismantles every team in its Western Conference path.

"It's great," Duncan said about returning to The Finals for the third time in the last six seasons. "It's about the journey."

Don't be too hard on Utah. No one expected this team to reach the conference finals. Should we really be surprised the Jazz played like it didn't belong?

This team has a nice future. But other than Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams, who finished the series on one good foot, Utah isn't ready for prime time.

Tony Parker scored as many points in the first 9:23 of the Game 5 as Utah's entire roster. Manu Ginobili had as many points off the San Antonio bench in the first half as Boozer and Williams combined. The Jazz fell behind by 23 points early in the second quarter and lost ground from there.

Bryant's trade request lasted longer than Utah.

"They destroyed our will to want to play," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said.

Again, none of this should come as a surprise. The Spurs are the best team going. Utah has now lost 19 straight games in South Texas by an average of 15.8 points. Only two of those losses were by less than five points. The Jazz hasn't beaten the Spurs in Texas since Feb. 28, 1999.

That's four months before the Spurs won their first title.

"I have all the respect in the world for what they have been about," Sloan. "You know, they get everything going with the players they have. I thought they would be awfully difficult to play against."

He was right. Now, the Spurs have a week to rest before The Finals start here next Thursday.

"I'll take the rest," Parker said. "We've got a lot of old guys on our team."

A lot of old guys who keep every other team in the West in their place.

I wonder what Kobe has to say about that?