As Suns arise, Lakers receive wake-up call

NBA: The remaining playoff teams in the Western Conference can thank Sacramento for extending the regular-season champs to five games in the first round.

May 07, 2000|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

The four remaining teams in the NBA's Western Conference playoffs owe the Sacramento Kings in general and Chris Webber in particular a small debt of gratitude.

The Los Angeles Lakers should thank the Kings for pushing them to the limit in a five-game, opening-round series that ended with the league's best regular-season team and pre-playoff favorite winning, 113-86, Friday night.

The Phoenix Suns, who will face the Lakers in the conference semifinals beginning today in Los Angeles, as well as the Portland Trail Blazers and the Utah Jazz, should thank Webber for showing the way to finish what the rest of the Kings couldn't.

Question: Do the teams left in the West have a player as multi-talented as Webber to create the kind of mismatch needed to give the Lakers fits? Answer: Not only do each of the other semifinalists have one star capable of leading their teams to the NBA Finals, they also have at least two.

But that doesn't mean the Lakers won't use their series against the Kings as a pretty good wake-up call.

First come the Suns, who knocked out the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in four games of their best-of-five series. While it might have been a different series, if not a different result, had Tim Duncan played, Phoenix was without Jason Kidd until Game4 and remains without Tom Gugliotta the rest of the way.

The return of Kidd gave the Suns a tremendous psychological boost, and his newly dyed blondhair might have scared the Spurs as much as his 10 assists and nine points in 31 minutes. With Kidd back and Penny Hardaway seemingly rejuvenated, the Suns finally have the backcourt they envisioned.

"Just his presence gives our guys a lot of confidence," Phoenix coach Scott Skiles said of Kidd, who missed the past two months with a broken leg.

The biggest problem for the Suns remains at center. While Luc Longley was serviceable at the position playing for three of Phil Jackson's six championship teams in Chicago, he never had to stop anyone as imposing as O'Neal along the way.

As dominant a player as O'Neal was this season, he was particularly destructive against the Suns, averaging more than 33 points and 14 rebounds in four straight victories for the Lakers. One of those wins even came with Kobe Bryant sitting out a suspension.

The Kings showed that the Lakers can be susceptible playing in transition - how's that for irony after all those years of "Showtime" and "The Lake Show?" The Suns are even more athletic than the Kings, and more under control with Kidd at the helm.

Aside from Longley, the biggest question mark for the Suns will be the shooting woes of leading scorer Cliff Robinson. A 46 percent shooter for the season who averaged 19 points against the Lakers, Robinson was a dismal 19-for-64 (29.7percent) against the Spurs.

They are only a couple of reasons not to pick against the Lakers, at least not yet.

The other series between the Blazers and Jazz should be the best of the four conference semifinals, if only for the sense of desperation that surrounds both teams. There has been a feeling around Portland and Utah that this might be the last chance at a ring.

Portland brought in Scottie Pippen from Houston this season to give the Blazers the leadership they lacked when they were swept by the Spurs in last year's conference finals. After storming out to a 41-11 record, the Blazers and Pippen coasted when they knew they couldn't catch the Lakers.

There were moments in the team's 3-1 opening-series win over the Minnesota Timberwolves when it looked as if Portland was still going through the motions. If not for Rasheed Wallace's inadvertent straightaway bank shot late in Game4, there might have been a Game5.

The 10-deep rotation that Mike Dunleavy employed earlier in the year has been reduced to seven or eight, with veterans Greg Anthony and Detlef Shrempf not getting the minutes they got in March. Pippen, Wallace and Steve Smith often logged more than 40 minutes a game against the Timberwolves.

While the Blazers won three of four regular-season meetings with the Jazz - Utah's only victory came in early November - it was usually by wearing down the NBA's oldest team with younger bodies off the bench.

That is no longer the case, and the Jazz has a distinct advantage in playoff experience as a team. While Utah was forced to play five games against the Seattle SuperSonics and won't have as much recovery time, the indomitable spirit of certain Hall of Famers Karl Malone and John Stockton might be enough.

The key matchup likely will be at center, with Portland having an edge with ArvydasSabonis and Wallace going up against Olden Polynice and Greg Ostertag. But another big matchup will be between veteran shooting guards Steve Smith and Jeff Hornacek.

Hornacek, who struggled against the Blazers during the regular season, has announced that he plans to retire after this season. From the way he played down the stretch against the SuperSonics, including a key tip-in, it doesn't appear as if he's on his last legs.

The talk all season has been looking down the road to the Western Conference finals between the league's two best teams, the Lakers and Trail Blazers. It might happen, but in the wacky West, anything is possible.

Just ask the Kings.

While they didn't win, they gave the remaining teams hope and strategy for beating Los Angeles.

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