Lakers still team to beat

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Sports Columnist

Last year, the Los Angeles Lakers struggled at times during what some saw as a disappointing regular season. Not that the majority of the league wouldn’t have killed for their record, but L.A. appeared to be so dominant that anything short of winning every game by a margin of twenty points looked to be sub-par.

Then, when playoff time rolled around, the Lakers seemed to magically turn it up a notch or two, as if pacing themselves through the season. It left many to wonder if it was really possible. Can a team really be that good ­ to play an entire season with limited effort, knowing they were so far superior to the rest of the teams that they would not be risking missing the playoffs in the process?

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Apparently so. The Lakers cruised through the early rounds of the playoffs, hardly being challenged and not losing a single game until meeting Philadelphia in the finals. But even that loss only seemed to make them angry, as now Shaq, Kobe, and company were bringing their "A" game.

So again this year, when they didn’t run away from the rest of the league during the season, some wondered if they were once again merely "resting the starters" in anticipation of the playoffs and yet another foregone conclusion of an NBA Final.

And again, the answer seems to be "yes".

Those who pull for the underdogs, (which is basically the rest of the league), saw a ray of hope when future Hall-of-Famer’s Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant both entered the playoffs somewhat hobbled. Shaq has been experiencing toe troubles most of the season, which has slowed him somewhat, and Kobe sustained an ankle sprain before the playoffs began, which would surely ground his aerial assaults.

On top of that, the Lakers are now locked in a struggle with the San Antonio Spurs, the one team many believe stands the best chance of toppling the NBA Champs. The Spurs boast a front line of league MVP Tim Duncan, easily the second-best big man in the league, an ailing but dangerous David Robinson, and board-banging Malik Rose. In the backcourt is up-and-coming speedy guard Tony Parker and Bruce Bowens, one of the league’s toughest defenders brought in specifically to put the brakes on Kobe.

The Lakers discovered early on that they had better abandon the cruise control against the Spurs. Each of the first three games in their best-of-seven series was a battle till the end. Each time, Los Angeles would come out lackluster and seemingly unmotivated, as the fired-up Spurs would build a lead of 10, 12, 15 points.

But like a boxer who doesn’t have the killer instinct to finish off his opponent when his legs are obviously wobbling, San Antonio doesn’t move in for the final blow. They seem almost stunned, as if they are afraid the Lakers are laying a trap for them somehow. As if it’s too good to be true. And inevitably, the Lakers make them pay for their hesitation, storming back to either win the game, or leave the Spurs hanging on by their fingernails for the victory.

Sunday night’s Game Four of the series was a microcosm of the entire series. For that matter, a microcosm of the Lakers’ entire season ­ cruising through the majority and coming on strong at the end.

Duncan played a brilliant game, shooting over smaller defenders and when the Lakers switched, blowing past the bigger, slower ones, Tony Parker showed off his speed, penetrating and dishing to teammates, and showing his shooting range at times. Even David Robinson played admirably (pardon the pun), despite showing quite a bit of rust from injuries that benched him for several games. And once again, the Spurs built a comfortable lead.

But guess what.

When it’s all said and done, the Lakers are still the Lakers, limping or not. Though not as devastating as normal, Shaq still owned the inside, and the Spurs could only watch and hope he missed. And Kobe? Well, I’ve never liked referring to anyone as "the next" whoever, but he is looking more and more Jordan-esque as his young career progresses. Although he clearly shares the throne with O’Neal, everyone in the arena knows who will have the ball in his hands with the clock running down and a chance to win the game. Only Jordan has ever been his superior at being able to create space for himself for a last-second shot. And as good as Bowens is, he has been on the receiving end of more highlights this series than he would care to mention.

Sunday night, after the Spurs had missed their final nine shots and once again failed to nail the lid down on L.A., Kobe had the ball with seconds remaining and the game tied. In the space of 10 heart-stopping seconds, Kobe dribbled off his foot, teammate Derek Fisher scooped up the loose ball and drove the lane, missing the running jumper. Kobe came out of nowhere to outleap everyone and snare the ball with his left hand, bounced off the floor to again soar above the seven-footer’s, and finger-rolled the ball into the basket to give his Lakers the 3-1 lead in the series.

End of game, probably end of series, and likely end of the most serious threat to the Lakers’ crown.