‘Magic’ hasn’t left L.A. Lakers

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 5, 2002

Sports Columnist

I really had every intention of writing about something other than the NBA Playoffs this week. Maybe Alabama’s SEC Baseball Tournament Championship and subsequent loss in the regionals to Florida Atlantic, a co-member with Troy State in the Atlantic Sun Conference.

But how could I NOT write about a game like Sunday Night’s Western Conference Finals thriller?

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If I’m not mistaken, it was the first time ever that a deciding Game 7 in a conference final had gone into overtime. Not to mention the fact that this was one of the most intense series from game to game that I have ever watched. The outcome of each game was in doubt until the final minute, and if any team appeared to finally be pulling away from the other, the trailing team would stubbornly storm back to make it a game again.

Most considered this series between the Lakers and Kings to be the de facto championship, believing this to be the best two teams in the league. And granted, an argument could be made for that. The Lakers are the two-time defending world champs and the Kings had home-court advantage by virtue of having the best regular-season record in the NBA. Quite frequently, it appeared that Sacramento would finally be the ones to snatch the crown from the mighty Lakers. It was common, early in the series, for the Kings to roar to a double-digit , even 20-point lead, only to see mental errors on their part and determination on the part of the Lakers bring the game back even.

In the end, what it came down to was experience, plain and simple. Those of us who haven’t been there find it difficult to believe that having experienced the playoffs before can make such a difference. We hear the experts mention it as a factor and we scoff, but time after time it proves true.

The Lakers had plenty of experience in the pressure-cooker. The Kings had none. The Lakers move on. The Kings go home.

Someone, however, forgot to tell Mike Bibby about the whole pressure thing. The Kings’ point guard, in only his first year with the team, was the equal and then some with Kobe when it came to putting his team on his shoulders when crunch time came. And he proved over and over that Robert Horry wasn’t the only guy around that could pull up and swish a three with the game on the line. He has brought tremendous stability and leadership to a team that desperately needed it.

Remember, this was a team that in recent years had to labor with Jason Williams at the point, the flashy guard who at times looked like Pistol Pete, but most of the time was just shooting blanks.

Oh, the Kings had plenty of other weapons, but only Bibby proved to have a steady trigger finger. Chris Webber is without question one of the best players in the world, but when the big shot is needed, it seems he would prefer someone else take it. Either that or he pulls up for a way-out-of-his-range three, as he inexplicably did toward the end of Sunday’s game.

Peja Stojakavic has been a pretty consistent threat from the perimeter, but with a chance to send his team to the championship, his wide open three-pointer hit nothing but the waiting hands of a Laker defender.

The Lakers, on the other hand, played like champions. That doesn’t necessarily mean dominating your opponents, which they didn’t. But it does mean having more determination and heart, which they did. They still have the best two players in the league in Kobe and Shaq, and in typical Laker tradition, they are surrounded by gifted role players who know their roles. Rick Fox getting under the skin of his opponents and daring you to leave him open. Derek Fisher and Robert Horry playing tenacious defense and hitting clutch threes. All of the above feeding Shaq inside.

All the Lakers are missing to make them completely untouchable is a true point guard. Fisher does a fine job, but he isn’t a true, slick dribbling, play-making point guard.

Think about this for a minute: the Lakers trade maybe Fisher and Horry or Fox to the Kings for Mike Bibby. Could you imagine?!? Well, guess what

– Bibby’s contract is up. Or if not Bibby, maybe ex-Michigan State All-American Mateen Cleaves, who rides Sacramento’s bench.

The last point guard who led the Spartans to an NCAA championship, like Cleaves, who later ran the point for L.A., worked out pretty well.

In fact, you might even say…..it was Magic.