Struggles, injuries aside, Lakers can still threepeat

ON THE NBA

Pro Basketball

April 07, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

You'll forgive the Los Angeles Lakers if they feel like a line from the Commodores' song "Easy," in which singer Lionel Richie laments that "everybody wants me to be what they want me to be."

In particular, it seems as if everybody wants the defending champions to be anxious or nervous or concerned or something heading into the playoffs.

The truth is they're not any of those things, and they wouldn't be happy trying to fake it.

"Regardless of whether we come out with the best record or not, we're playing with the rhythm, effort and energy on the defensive end that's similar to last year's," said Los Angeles forward Rick Fox, after the Lakers routed the Washington Wizards last week.

Ah, last year, when the Lakers closed the regular season with eight straight wins, then swept their first three playoff series for a 15-game win streak on the way to their second straight title.

Phil Jackson, who seemingly had to play boxing referee to Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant last year as much as coach, actually has invoked the Alfred E. Neuman "What, me worry?" approach to about his team, which is poised, like last season, to grab the third seed in the West.

"We're still playing within ourselves," said Jackson. "We haven't had to step it up too far too fast. I still think we have another level to go as a basketball team. It's important for them to know they haven't played their best ball yet this year."

Now, that's a scary thought, isn't it? Actually, things aren't quite so hunky-dory in Lakerland of late, what with O'Neal, who has been nursing a sore toe all season, sitting out a loss to the New Jersey Nets with a wrist ailment.

And, according to Bryant, the Lakers still are trying to find that proverbial switch everyone else seems to think they can flip to get ready for the playoffs.

"I think we're in search of that gear, to have it be consistent," said Bryant. "I don't think we think we can turn it on and off like a switch. ... It's very difficult to threepeat. It's a process. If you look at it, even the Chicago teams and the Celtic teams, in their first threepeat, it was a difficult process for them. And that's the kind of process we're going through."

Yet, even with the Sacramento Kings presumably on target for home-court advantage through the playoffs and the San Antonio Spurs playing exceptionally in recent weeks, does anyone doubt where the playoffs will take us - namely, to another Lakers title?

"The thing about Phil is, he knows he has the best team," said Washington coach Doug Collins.

"As much as the home court is vital, I think from the Lakers' standpoint, they know that they're still the best team," Collins said. "As much as Sacramento has a great home court - and maybe Dallas or San Antonio [do, too] - I've always felt when those teams go up against each other, it was much more vital for [them] to beat the Lakers in the regular season than for the Lakers to beat them. There's just a presence that the Lakers have about them, that they know that they are the champions."

Quiz

Speaking of Jackson, he is poised to become the first coach in league history to get three straight championships three times. Only two other coaches have won three straight titles. One of them was Red Auerbach, who guided the Celtics to eight straight championships. Name the other. (Hint: He directed a Lakers team, as well.)

The Jordan effect

There are some who might believe that the Washington Wizards might have been better served this season without Michael Jordan's playing presence. They would contend that the franchise's long-term health might have been improved with Jordan learning how to be a better general manager and a young team learning to feel its way without an aging but still talented superstar skewing the equation.

Don't count Collins among the naysayers.

"This team, last year, basically, was 19-63," said Collins last week after Jordan announced that he would miss the rest of the season with inflammation in his right knee. "Now, with Michael, we have 34 wins. I don't think there was much else that changed other than the fact that Kwame [Brown] was drafted, but he really hasn't been able to do much until the end. Now, he's starting to come on, but basically, the team is the addition of Michael and the team that went 19-63 last year. He gave us 34 wins."

Collins said Jordan has embedded the players with his professionalism and his desire to make each game count, meaning players will play for the team in March and April as opposed to playing for personal glory from January on.

"Every one of our players has grown, because they've been around him," said Collins. "If you want to say it wasn't successful, all you have to do is see what he's done for this team, not only in wins and losses but just in every phase of this organization.

"I want this to be a steppingstone. I want us to be able to take what he's done now and continue to build on that. His presence has been incredible."

Now, the waiting begins.

Jordan, the master of milking the moment to extract the maximum value, is likely to draw speculation over whether he will return next season to fulfill his two-year playing deal through the summer up until training camp begins in the fall.

The betting here is that Jordan comes back, if for no other reason than this: His ego will not allow him to go out with the last image of his career being a 2-points-in-12-minutes performance, both career lows, against his former coach, Jackson.

Answer

John Kundla led the Minneapolis Lakers to championships from 1952 to 1954.

Quote

"They had a great line about me holding on to Lisa Leslie's leg. I liked that one."

- Former New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy about reports that he would become coach of the WNBA's Washington Mystics.

Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.

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