Race to be best in West unfolds with 5 contenders

ON THE NBA

Pro Basketball

March 25, 2001|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

While attention of the nation's hoops fans understandably has been drawn to the NCAA tournaments, a real horse race has emerged, ever so quietly, in the NBA's Western Conference.

Five teams - San Antonio, the Los Angeles Lakers, Utah, Sacramento and Portland - have precious little wiggle room among themselves with home-court advantage in the coming conference playoffs at stake.

And with Philadelphia falling back to earth of late, there's a chance that home court all the way through the league championship series is in the hopper.

"Well, everything is possible, especially because all five teams in the West, and now including Philadelphia, are maybe one game different," Sacramento center Vlade Divac said last week. "So definitely, the home games are very important for everybody. So we really have to finish the season strong, taking all the home games and doing the best we can on the road."

Here's a quick look at the Fabulous Five:

Spurs: Virtually out of nowhere, the 1999 champions have vaulted to the top of the Western standings, and, going into Friday's games, passed the 76ers for league's best record.

That Tim Duncan and David Robinson are the focal points of the San Antonio attack is a given. But the offseason acquisition of guard Derek Anderson from the Los Angeles Clippers and the insertion of 37-year-old Terry Porter in the starting lineup at the point is what has propelled the Spurs. The outside shooting from Porter and Anderson gives the Twin Towers more room to operate inside and makes San Antonio the odds-on favorite.

"They won it in the lockout season," said Lakers forward Rick Fox, "and if it hadn't been for Duncan's injury last year, it could have been interesting. They're healthy now, so that's why I know it's really wide-open. They know what it means to win a championship. So do we."

Lakers: Just when it looked as if the defending champions were about to seize control of the West, turmoil and injuries reared their ugly heads. The Lakers had just gotten point guard Derek Fisher back into the lineup from a stress fracture in his right foot, when Kobe Bryant limped off the floor near the end of Wednesday's loss to Milwaukee, aggravating a left-ankle sprain.

"We need a lot of maintenance. I think it's the comings and goings of players more than anything else ... a lack of continuity in our lineup and on our team," said Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson. "We need to have guys who are able and ready to play in our mix."

And then there's the ongoing Kobe-Shaq feud, which took on an even more bizarre dynamic last week when Shaquille O'Neal's stepfather heckled Bryant during a game in Orlando a couple of days after Jackson and Bryant got into an argument during a loss in Atlanta.

Jazz: Lurking behind San Antonio in the Midwest, Utah's group of veterans seems poised to climb above the Spurs or Lakers, if either falters. The Jazz has a huge meeting with San Antonio at the Alamodome on Thursday, but considering it possesses the West's best road record (22-11), there shouldn't be many worries. Utah will play eight of its next 15 against potential playoff teams, with four of those on the road, including the showdown with the Spurs.

Kings: Because Sacramento's presence at the top of the West is so unexpected, given the team's history, the Kings enter the stretch run as a bit of an X-factor.

The oft-raucous Arco Arena crowd has helped push Sacramento to the league's best home record, and it'll need it with a stretch of home games that includes today's clash with the Lakers and meetings with New York, Minnesota, Dallas and Milwaukee - all playoff contenders.

Trail Blazers: Everybody's favorite dysfunctional bunch is actually closer to falling to sixth in the West behind Minnesota than winning the Pacific and one of the top two seeds in the playoffs.

Adding Rod Strickland and Detlef Schrempf has hurt locker-room chemistry, and coach Mike Dunleavy now calls plays from the bench rather than letting players run more of a transition game. The feeling is that Dunleavy is a goner if Portland, with team sports' highest payroll, doesn't win it all.

"They are realizing now that they are going to have a problem if they don't shake this situation up, because we have a lot of strong teams in the West," Divac said. "Before the season, I thought they were going to be the No. 1 team."

Quiz

Need proof that the interior game is still what it's about in the NBA? Consider this: Of the 20 players on the league's all-time free throws-made list, only five are guards, and of the five active players on the list, only one routinely plays in the backcourt. Can you name the quintet, including the current member? No hints.

Moving day

Tomorrow is the deadline for Vancouver owner Michael Heisley and Charlotte owners George Shinn and Ray Wooldridge to let the league know if they will stay in their cities next season or try to move.

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