L.A.'s Game 5 flop gets Indy in gear

Upstart Pacers aim to force a Game 7

June 19, 2000|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

LOS ANGELES - It has become a question of character. The Los Angeles Lakers clearly are the NBA's most dominant team, but proving it continues to be a separate issue.

Who seriously thought that the best-of-seven NBA Finals would get back Los Angeles for Game 6 at the sold-out, star-studded Staples Center? The Lakers won their first two home games and built a 3-1 lead with a victory in Game 4 in Indianapolis, which supposedly made their first NBA championship since the Magic Johnson years a foregone conclusion.

But to draw that conclusion would be to ignore history.

The Lakers were supposed to dispense with the Sacramento Kings in the first round of the playoffs, only to win the first two games and then struggle to survive the best-of-five series. They jumped in front of the Portland Trail Blazers a couple of times in the Western Conference finals, only to come within one miraculous fourth quarter of being eliminated in Game 7.

After the Blazers - a lot of people thought the Western Conference finals was the true NBA championship - this was supposed to be a cakewalk, and that's what it looked like until the Pacers exploded in Game 5 to hand the Lakers their biggest margin of defeat (33 points) all season.

So, which Lakers are going to show up tonight? The star-powered team that hopes to build the NBA's next great dynasty, or the inconsistent team that creates its own drama?

If recent history holds, they will find a way to lose Game 6 and emerge with a hard-fought victory in the deciding game.

"Well, if I'm them, [the Lakers] still have to feel good about themselves," Pacers star Reggie Miller said. "They're probably thinking that we have to win two ballgames to win the series in their building, a place that we haven't won in all year, of course."

Imposing center Shaquille O'Neal, whose reputation as a championship-caliber player has been on the line throughout the series, cannot want to leave anything to chance this time. The Pacers, despite their strong performance on Friday night, do not really have an answer for the league's all-but-unanimous MVP.

Indiana did hold super-guard Kobe Bryant to eight points in Game 5, but even the Pacers conceded that it was Bryant who misfired his way to one of his softest performances of the year, not the result of brilliant defensive strategy by Pacers coach Larry Bird.

The Pacers must continue to find ways to limit the Lakers' star power, but the key to Game 6 may simply be maintaining the momentum they generated with their impressive offensive performance on Friday night.

"We absolutely, positively, have nothing to lose and everything in the world to gain," Miller said. "So we are going to play free, loose, we don't care. From the get-go, they were supposed to beat us. They were supposed to sweep us. We have nothing to hang our heads about. We can come out and play."

There is no doubt that the Lakers see themselves as the true heirs to the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 1990s, and why not? They boast the most dominant inside player in the game (O'Neal) as well as the most complete backcourt player (Bryant). They also march to the beat of the same coach who led the Bulls to those six titles.

Phil Jackson, known affectionately and otherwise as "The Zen Master," has enhanced his legend by turning a group of fine individual players into a basketball machine that has been projected as the 1999-2000 NBA champion from Day 1. If, somehow, they don't win it, his inability to focus all that talent might become the only blemish on his fabulous coaching record.

Though Jackson was disturbed by the lopsided loss on Friday night, he did not lose sight of the fact that the Lakers retained the home-court advantage by winning one of the three games in Indiana.

"We bounced back from games like this before," he said after the 120-87 loss. "I don't like to think of a team that has championship quality in it losing by 33 points. We have to prove something to ourselves."

Robert Horry agreed.

"We're not even looking at what we might have to do in a seventh game," the Lakers forward said. "We don't want them to come in here and beat us in our building and start thinking they've got a shot at us."

Bird, meanwhile, is unlikely to hold anything back. He is expected to resign as coach whether the Pacers win or lose. His status as one of the greatest players in the history of the sport is assured, but his short coaching career will not figure prominently in his legacy without at least one NBA championship - even though he has led the Pacers into the playoffs in each of his three years as coach.

It would be an impressive coaching feat to force the mighty Lakers into a decisive seventh game, but Bird didn't build his reputation as a player by settling for runner-up. The Pacers will come out firing, as they did in that amazing first quarter in Game 5. If enough of those shots fall, the next three days in L.A. could be very interesting.

"When you're down 3-1, you've got three seventh games," Bird said. "This is our seventh game again. We responded the other night, and hopefully we'll come out with the same effort."

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