Despite balance in West, Lakers favored to hang on

Star-studded team still 1 to beat in NBA playoffs

April 17, 2004|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

Around 10 p.m. Pacific time Tuesday night, the outlook for the NBA playoffs looked as topsy-turvy as any playoff in the past 10 years.

Then, Kobe Bryant raised up with a second to go in the Los Angeles Lakers-Portland Trail Blazers game and hit an improbable last-second three-pointer to lift the Lakers to a Pacific Division title.

Bryant's shot essentially reduced the postseason, which opens today, to the same question that has hovered over the playoffs for the past five seasons:

Who can beat the Lakers four times in a seven-game series?

"No one could even have imagined this," Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson told the Los Angeles Times. "[But], as a result, we sit here feeling like we gained some momentum back to go into these playoffs. We have to feel good about where we're at."

To be sure, there are perhaps more teams with a realistic chance to win the championship than in recent seasons. A solid argument could be made for any of the other top four seeds in the West (Minnesota, San Antonio or Sacramento).

And, for a change, two Eastern teams, Indiana, the club with the league's best record, and Detroit may give whomever emerges from the West a good run in the championship series.

But Bryant's shot - the second buzzer-beating three-pointer of the 105-104 double overtime win - shook up the West's bracket, pushing Sacramento from the No. 2 seed as division winner to the No. 4 seed, and reawakened what had seemed a slumbering giant in the Lakers, who added future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton in the offseason to join Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal.

Between Bryant's court appearances on a Colorado rape charge and squabbles with his teammates, O'Neal's occasional absences from the lineup for various injuries, Malone's knee ailment and Payton's railings about his lack of involvement in the offensive set, the Lakers have coasted from time to time.

But if they can string 16 wins together between now and mid-June, all the turmoil, theoretically, would have been worth it.

"The Lakers are the X-factor," said TNT analyst Kenny Smith. "They can beat anyone in the East or the West. No one is physically strong enough to match up with Shaquille. The best one-on-one player in basketball right now is Kobe Bryant. He gets to play one-on-one, because you can't double up on Kobe Bryant and leave Shaq open."

There are other compelling stories in the 16-team tournament beyond the Lakers drama. For instance, the Timberwolves, behind presumptive Most Valuable Player Kevin Garnett, claimed the best record in the West, and will attempt to get out of the first round for the first time, meeting Denver, which advances to the postseason for the first time in 10 years.

Meanwhile, Sacramento, which had the West's best record for most of the season until forward Chris Webber came back from knee surgery and suspension, collapsed in the season's final week, and now will have to prove that they are mentally tough enough to advance, facing Dallas, the team that eliminated them last year in the second round.

And sitting there ever so quietly in the third slot is San Antonio, the defending champion, who will have home court in the West against everyone other than Minnesota.

Forward Tim Duncan, the reigning two-time Most Valuable Player, has accumulated double doubles all season in leading a revamped Spurs team to the doorstep of a second straight title and the third in six years. San Antonio will open defense of its crown against Memphis, a surprise 50-game winner, making its first trip to the playoffs in its 10-year history.

In the East, most are counting New Jersey, the two-time defending conference winner, out, because of late-season injuries to Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin. Both have returned, but some believe the New York Knicks, their first-round opponent, could pull the upset.

The focus in the East is centered on the Pacers, whose 61-21 mark is not only the best in franchise history, but the best in the league. Indiana, with new coach Rick Carlisle and forwards Jermaine O'Neal and Ron Artest, is thought to have enough athleticism and defensive firepower to stay with Western teams. The Pacers face Boston, which at 10 games under .500, has the worst record in the playoffs.

The other presumed Eastern title challenger is Detroit, which added volatile forward Rasheed Wallace in a late-season trade. Wallace has been a model citizen in Detroit, where Larry Brown took over as coach after leaving Philadelphia. Detroit will meet Milwaukee in the first round.

The final Eastern first-round match pits surprising Miami, with free-agent acquisition Lamar Odom and rookie point guard Dwyane Wade against perennially underachieving New Orleans, whose coach, Tim Floyd, might need to win to keep his job.

NBA playoffs

First round

(Best of seven; *-if necessary)

Eastern Conference

Indiana vs. Boston

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