Cruising along, L.A. cautious of stalling

Up 3-1, Lakers eye quick exit to Finals

June 16, 2000|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS - The light, according to Phil Jackson, is flickering - showing signs of wanting to come on completely before fading out again.

It has been that way in each of the Lakers' three previous playoffs series and could be that way again tonight in Game 5 of the NBA Finals against the Indiana Pacers at Conseco Fieldhouse. Los Angeles holds a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, but held that same advantage in the Western Conference finals against Portland. The Trail Blazers rallied to tie the series and dominated Game 7 before a fourth-quarter collapse.

"I've been waiting for the, you know, `a-ha' light to go on in this team for some time, and it comes and goes," Jackson said of the Lakers becoming the NBA's next great team. "That's one of the reasons I felt that this year was premature to kind of expect anything of that nature yet. There's a certain sense or a certain nature about a team."

Whether the Lakers have that sense probably will not be determined if they beat Indiana tonight to capture their first NBA title since 1988. The Pacers are a team most believe are out-manned, especially on the rebounding and defensive fronts.

The true test will come years from now, whether people speak of this team in the same terms as they speak of Jackson's preceding team, the Chicago Bulls, who won six titles during the 1990s.

With stars like 28-year-old Shaquille O'Neal and 21-year-old Kobe Bryant, two of the best players in the NBA, that could happen. But any comparisons now, especially in light of Los Angeles' inability to decisively finish off teams in the playoffs, are premature, according to Ron Harper.

In their first-round series against the Sacramento Kings, the Lakers took a 2-0 lead, but were forced to a fifth game before advancing. Los Angeles then had a chance to sweep the Phoenix Suns in the conference semifinals, but was blown out by 19 points in Game 4. The Lakers advanced the next game.

Asked to compare the teams, Harper, who ran the point for Chicago's last three title teams, said the Bulls "would kick [the crap] out of the Lakers." What makes him say that?

"They just would," Harper said.

The Lakers could go a long way to closing the gap in Harper's mind between those championship teams of Chicago and this one with a win tonight in one of the most hostile environments in the league.

Indiana held the best home record in the Eastern Conference during the regular season and has played well during the past two games. It took heroic efforts from Bryant and O'Neal, not to mention Reggie Miller's missed three-pointer in the final seconds, to keep this series from being tied. The Lakers hung on for a 120-118 overtime victory Wednesday night.

Had the series become tied, all talk of a Lakers dynasty would have been replaced by talk of a possible L.A. collapse.

"I'm not going to lie; there were a lot of what-ifs, personally for myself," Miller said. "But like I said, we have a beating pulse, we got a game on Friday, and we got to find some way to extend the series. I think the toughest thing about Game 4 was you shoot 50 percent against a good defensive team and you got a great contribution from Rik [Smits], you expect to win a ballgame."

Miller is anticipating the same kind of effort with some added adjustments in rebounding for tonight's game. If the Pacers do not extend the series, Larry Bird will have coached his final game. Bird said all season he is planning to step down after the playoffs.

"The way I look at it, it's been my best year," Bird said. "I've enjoyed it. It's been a great experience for me. But I want it to end next Wednesday. I want these guys to have an opportunity to play for the world championship in the seventh game."

It may also be the final game for many of the Pacers who are becoming free agents at the end of this season. Miller, Jalen Rose, Mark Jackson and Austin Croshere lead the list.

"A lot of guys around here are free agents," Mark Jackson said. "Whenever this thing ends, whether it's in Game 5 or Game 7, this could be all of our last games. So we're not concerned about that. Our concern right now is ... giving ourselves a chance to go to L.A. and do something very special."

History, and not just the immediate history with the Lakers' inability to finish teams, is on the Pacers' side as far as winning Game 5. Indiana has been closed out on its home floor once in the past five seasons, 1996 against Atlanta.

"We can't let that happen," Rose said.

"It's basically going to take the same thing we've been trying to do since Game 1: Stop Shaq. That is where it all starts. Obviously, Kobe played a great game, but we can live with his 25 or 30 [points]. It is a lot different when you have another guy getting 35. We have to understand that we just don't want this thing to end."

If it does end tonight, Los Angeles will have cleared the one hurdle that has been standing in its way throughout the playoffs, while at the same time possibly opening a path to numerous titles to come.

"I think this is different," O'Neal said. "This is the big dance, and we just have to get it done. If we bring our game, it's possible we can do that. Yesterday, the whole team brought that game, and we were able to get a win. I think if we just come with the intensity and just play loose, we should be able to do it.

"Hopefully, if we can get this victory, this will be the start of something."

NBA Finals

Indiana vs. L.A. Lakers

(Best-of-seven series; L.A. Lakers lead 3-1)

Game 1: L.A., 104-87

Game 2: L.A., 111-104

Game 3: Indiana, 100-91

Game 4: L.A., 120-118, OT

Tonight: at Indiana, 9

Monday: at L.A., 9 p.m.*

Wednesday: at L.A., 9 p.m.*

TV: Chs. 11, 4

*-If necessary

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