L.A. near other side of finality

Real threat of elimination hushes defending champ

May 31, 2002|By Sam Smith | Sam Smith,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

El SEGUNDO, Calif. - The Los Angeles Lakers' backs are to the wall. Well, Phil Jackson's was anyway.

"Elimination is not the best place to live," Jackson said, his back literally against the wall at the Lakers' practice facility as reporters surrounded him yesterday. "But the way we're playing, we feel good. We felt like we outplayed them [in Game 5]. We put some pressure on them, but just didn't finish it out.

"We've won one at the buzzer, they've won one at the buzzer. So tit for tat, so to speak. Now it's time to settle in and play the game we know we can play and carry it back to their court and force a Game 7 and have a chance to win."

But, Phil, the dynasty? A third championship? Your ninth as a coach? The legend? A city waits to take its next breath.

"It's just a ballgame," he said.

And so the two-time defending champion Lakers go into tonight's Game 6 trailing the Sacramento Kings 3-2 in the Western Conference finals. Reporters swarmed the facility for two days seeking drama, desperation and controversy. One asked every Laker she could about the feud between Jackson and Kobe Bryant over whether Bryant should have guarded Mike Bibby on his final shot in Game 5.

"Are you concerned?" she asked Shaquille O'Neal.

"I'm concerned with you asking me those crazy questions," O'Neal replied. "Other than that, nothing."

Someone else suggested Jackson may not be what he was, that his strategies have come up short against those of Kings coach Rick Adelman and that he cannot last with O'Neal and Bryant the way he publicly challenges them.

If Bryant was bothered, he wasn't letting on.

"Our spirits are pretty high," he said. "I don't see anyone walking around with their head down. Let's roll the ball out on Friday and see what's what. The reality is if we win, we move on to play a seventh game. If we lose, we go on vacation. It's not scary. It's not a nervous situation."

Perhaps that is what makes champions. Few ever saw the Chicago Bulls sweat, although they never were in a situation this dire in any of their six championship seasons. Twice Jackson's Bulls played seventh games - in 1992 against the Knicks and in 1998 against the Pacers - but both times at home. If the Lakers can force it, Game 7 will be Sunday in Sacramento.

"We have to win two in a row," O'Neal said. "We're capable of doing that, and I think that's what we're going to do."

Bryant probably will spend more time on Bibby, although Jackson has been hesitant to wear down Bryant that way because he's needed for late-game offense with O'Neal not at full strength.

Needless to say, Bibby has the Lakers' attention.

"They've played bigger at big moments than I thought they were capable of playing, and it's obvious it's Bibby," said forward Rick Fox. "He wasn't there the last two years, so you credit [Kings general manager] Geoff Petrie for making a great move and stabilizing that squad."

Bibby is averaging 21 points against the Lakers, eight points above his regular-season average. "You take him out of the mix and this is a different series," Fox said.

There's also the typical officiating controversy, with the Lakers pointing out that O'Neal played 32 minutes, accumulated six fouls and shot just one free throw while hitting 14 of 18 shots in Game 5. The belief is that will change in Game 6.

Asked about playing better defense, O'Neal said, "I wasn't playing defense [Tuesday] and I got six fouls called on me."

Not that the foul calls were everything. The Lakers' shooting has been miserable: Derek Fisher is shooting 26 percent overall and 17 percent on three-pointers; Devean George is 19 percent on threes; Lindsey Hunter is 22 percent on threes; and Brian Shaw is 25 percent on threes.

"The other guys have to step up and hit shots or I have to take more shots," O'Neal said.

Sam Smith is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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