LOS ANGELES The Spurs-Lakers rivalry has been on hiatus since 2004 for one simple reason: The Lakers haven't been very good.
They are now.
So the NBA's dominant teams of the past decade meet again, with the winner taking a giant step toward another possible championship.
"As far as the playoffs go, it's San Antonio," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said Tuesday when asked if the Spurs were his team's biggest rival.
"We've had our battles. We've had some great matchups," Lakers star Kobe Bryant said. "It feels great to be back at that level, matching up with San Antonio."
Game 1 of the Western Conference finals is Wednesday night at Staples Center, where the Lakers are 6-0 in the postseason and winners of 12 straight overall including a 106-85 victory over the Spurs in their next-to-last game of the regular season.
The teams have combined to win seven of the last nine championships, with the Spurs prevailing in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007 and the Lakers doing so from 2000-02. They lost to Detroit in the NBA finals in 2004.
Shaquille O'Neal was traded that summer, and the Lakers failed to win a playoff series for three straight years. That prompted Bryant to demand a trade following their elimination last spring.
But to most everyone's surprise, the Lakers returned to elite status this season, and enter the conference finals with a league-best 8-2 record in the playoffs.
"It's always great to play against the Lakers," San Antonio's Tony Parker said Monday night after the Spurs' 91-82 victory at New Orleans propelled them into the conference finals. "Kobe's at his best; they have a great team. It reminds me of my first couple of years in the league. Back to the rivalry. It will be great."
The well-rested Lakers, who haven't played since Friday night, already figured to be facing a travel-weary team. But that was before the Spurs' trip to Los Angeles took on nightmare proportions.
Their departure from New Orleans was delayed several hours after their plane had mechanical problems. Because of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association's annual convention, which attracted about 20,000 people to New Orleans, the Spurs were unable to find hotel rooms in the city.
"Not what you would hope for," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said with a tired smile late Tuesday afternoon at the team's hotel in suburban Santa Monica. "Mechanical problem, no mechanic, then no plane, no hotel. Eventful, strange, weird. Reminded me of Division III basketball."
Popovich said some of his players slept on the plane, others didn't. Finally, another plane was brought in from Minneapolis, and the team took off about 6:30 a.m. about six hours after the original departure time. It landed in Los Angeles some four hours later.
The Spurs didn't practice Tuesday.
He did say it was a good thing the Spurs had won Game 7.
"If this had been a loss, we would have been fighting each other," he said. "There would have been deaths on that plane."
The Lakers have a 7-3 record against the Spurs in the postseason, including 3-0 in the conference finals. They last met at this stage of the playoffs seven years ago, with the Lakers sweeping the Spurs on their way to a best-ever 15-1 postseason record.
The teams met in the conference semifinals in each of the next three years, with the Lakers winning twice, most recently in 2004.
The teams went 2-2 this season, winning their games at home. The Lakers outscored the Spurs 53-32 in the second half of their one-sided win last month, but Manu Ginobili didn't play because of an injured groin.
Ginobili scored 26 points against New Orleans in Game 7 and is averaging 20.0 points in the playoffs.
Bryant, winner of his first MVP award this season, is averaging an NBA-leading 33.3 points in the postseason.