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.