Lakers again favored sons of NBA

Since starting 11-19, L.A. is polar opposite of itself

Nba Playoff Preview

April 19, 2003|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

It's sheer audacity, bordering on madness, to suggest that the Los Angeles Lakers can win a fourth straight NBA title after emerging from a Christmas Day home loss to the Sacramento Kings with an 11-19 record. Isn't it?

How in the world could the Lakers conceive of another victory parade down the streets of Los Angeles when they were supposedly left on the roadside such a short time ago?

"The most difficult thing is not going to be able to get one victory against the Lakers, but to get four victories against the Lakers," said ABC/ESPN analyst Bill Walton. "They have a way of playing better and better and better each and every game."

Indeed, even with the difficulties the Lakers seemingly had in the regular season, what with injuries and lethargy setting in, they will open defense of their crown tomorrow at Minnesota as the fifth seed in the Western Conference and as a solid choice to return to the NBA Finals in June.

The Phil Jackson-coached Lakers could become the first team to win as many as four in a row since the Boston Celtics teams of the 1950s and '60s that won eight straight titles. In fact, if the Lakers win this title, Jackson will surpass the Celtics' legendary Red Auerbach (nine championships) as Jackson already has six from his days with the Chicago Bulls.

"It was difficult at times to see this part of the season and feel confident in it," Lakers forward Rick Fox told the Los Angeles Times. "We rode the past a lot and our memory, the fact that a lot of us in here have been through that together and that it's still within us as a group to get back to that type of effort."

That institutional memory is made easier when one remembers - as if one could forget - that the Lakers, who were 26-9 after the All-Star break, have center Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, and no one else does. O'Neal, who has battled foot and toe injuries all season, appears to be in his best shape of the season. Bryant has had, in the estimation of many, a Most Valuable Player-caliber season.

As a result, the Timberwolves, who have lost in the first round of the playoffs in each of the past six seasons, are considered in many circles the underdogs in this series, despite having home-court advantage for the first time in the postseason.

"You can't feel sorry for yourself," Minnesota forward Kevin Garnett told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "This is a no-nonsense league. It's eat or be eaten, or whatever that [phrase] is. No one cares that we've lost in the first round for `X' amount of years. It's not that type of league."

The Lakers aren't likely to get a cakewalk through the West if they emerge from the Timberwolves series. Their fifth seed is the lowest in this current championship run, and the three top seeds - the San Antonio Spurs, Sacramento Kings and Dallas Mavericks - are all formidable opponents.

The Spurs, for instance, swept the Lakers in the regular season and won 26 of 32 games after the All-Star break. They have an eight-game road winning streak and an 11-game run after the break in their resume, as well as MVP candidate Tim Duncan.

They face the Phoenix Suns in the first round, which like all the first-round series, is best-of-seven, a change from the previous best-of-five format.

The Kings, who will play host to Utah in their opening-round series, are the deepest team in the league. Their front line of forward Chris Webber and center Vlade Divac, with bench help from Scot Pollard and Keon Clark, can hurt Los Angeles. The Mavericks, who had the best record in the league for most of the season before being caught by the Spurs in the last week, have the best offensive attack in the NBA.

What all three teams also share is an inability to beat Los Angeles in the postseason. The Lakers' position in the middle of the bracket means that they would only have to beat two of the trio to reach the Finals.

Once again, the Eastern Conference playoffs are an afterthought to the West. Only one team, top seed Detroit, won 50 games. Five teams in the West won that many or more.

What's more, the Lakers have dispatched the victors from the East (New Jersey, Philadelphia and Indianapolis) for three years running.

But while the East may be mediocre in comparison to the West, the playoff competition may be more even.

For instance, the lower-seeded team in three of the four first-round series in the East has a decent chance to win. The Orlando Magic, the eighth seed, could become the third eighth-seeded team in league history to capture a first round. It's particularly possible if the Pistons, the NBA's best defensive team, can't control Tracy McGrady, the league's leading scorer.

The New Jersey Nets, who advanced to the league's championship series for the first time in franchise history last season, return as the second seed. But New Jersey stumbled late in the regular season and could be susceptible to an upset from seventh seed Milwaukee, which has been revitalized by a midseason trade for guard Gary Payton and forward Desmond Mason.

And the New Orleans Hornets, whom many believe are the most talented team in the East, should push the Philadelphia 76ers to the limit in their series.

All things considered, however, the next two months may well be little more than a prelude to the seemingly obvious: another Lakers title.

"The theme for this year's playoffs is who can beat the Lakers and how do you do it," Walton said. "And until somebody actually does it on the court, it's nothing but talk and hot air."

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