Friday, May 31
Updated: June 3, 12:06 PM ET
Don't think Lakers can't threepeat
By Peter May
Special to ESPN.com
LOS ANGELES -- They're back.
For all of us who looked at the Los Angeles Lakers over the first five games of the Western Conference finals and wondered if we should expect to see them next at some exhibition game in San Luis Obispo, we got our answer.
The refs gave them Game 6. They then went out and became the first team in 20 years to win a conference final game on the road, helped out by their own experience and the Sacramento Kings' uncanny inability to do the most basic of NBA chores -- make free throws.
The Lakers make their way back to the NBA Finals knowing that, in their last two series at least (and, perhaps, their last three), they've beaten a team which is superior to the one they're going to face. Do we dare even think they won't be able to threepeat? If you do, you're on your own.
Are they vulnerable? Sure. Shaq is not the same, dominating, overpowering, and overwhelming force he was last year. But whatever he is, and he says it isn't close to 100 percent, he still was enough to beat the Kings. And he still should have enough against the Springfield-bound trio of Todd MacCulloch, Aaron Williams and Jason Collins in the Finals. Plus, and this is something that the NBA has dreaded for years, he finally is making his free throws. Good luck.
"You know, in the past couple years, Phil (Jackson) used to yell at me when I threw it in to Shaq late in the game," Rick Fox said. "He doesn't anymore. Shaq can make them, now."
Yes, their bench is suspect; heck, most of them don't even play. Throw out Shaq and Kobe Bryant and you have, well, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. But you can't throw out Shaq and Kobe and, when they're there, they just happen to make the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo guys look like real, actual, NBA players. And that's when the Lakers are at their best.
Fox is one of those guys who has to play well every now and then for the Lakers to threepeat. Jackson can pretty much count on O'Neal and Kobe to show up and put up numbers, make stops and do the right things. The Lakers inevitably seem to live and die based on the contributions of what Michael Jordan used to derisively refer to as his "supporting cast."
In Game 7 of the conference finals, Fox submitted a line which perhaps made it the best performance of his career, especially under the circumstances. He had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists. Who knows what he would have done if he'd known his wife had been denied a Tony Award? He might have had a triple-double. Robert Horry had 16 points and 12 rebounds. When the Lakers get that from their underlings, along with the requisite big numbers from their supernovae, they usually win.
Especially when the opponents gag 14 free throws and 18 3-pointers in an overtime game.
When four of your five starters have double-doubles, the Lakers are almost impossible to beat.
Especially if the opponent butchers 14 free throws and 18 3-pointers in an overtime game.
We all suspected the Lakers were either bored or challenged as the playoffs approached. We knew they'd take care of Portland, as they invariably seem to do. They did, in the minimum three games.
San Antonio proved to be a bit harder. But in the fourth quarter of all five games, you looked at the Spurs the same way you looked at a wayward puppy that had wandered out onto an Interstate. Something bad was bound to happen.
Then came the Kings. The Lakers stopped playing after winning Game 1 and then were given some life support by Horry's game-winning shot in Game 4 and the shameless performance by the officials in Game 6. But they showed their grit in Game 7. It isn't easy winning in Sacramento, unless the home team clangs 14 free throws and 18 3-pointers in an overtime game. Did we note that earlier?
But, as Fox noted, that's what pressure can do to a team. The Lakers are many things. They have their blemishes. But they are seemingly impervious to the pressure of big-game basketball. You almost get the feeling that they would welcome a loss in one of the first two games of the Finals simply to give them the challenge and motivation they need to win on the road and take home another trophy.
And, make no mistake, that is what they are going to do. They didn't suffer through the conference finals to lose to the New Jersey Nets. Yes, they got a couple of gift-wrapped games in that series, one of them courtesy of a "lucky shot" at the end and the other due to a ridiculous number of calls in their behalf. But, when they had to win, they did.
We all know by now that New Jersey is a wonderful story and, still, no one thinks they're going to beat the Lakers. At least, no one outside of Exit 16W does, except Jim O'Brien, the coach of the Boston Celtics. And, really, what's Obie supposed to say after his team has been taken down in six? "We lost to a better team, but not better than the Lakers?"
What's going to possibly faze the Lakers now, other than a team that can make its free throws? The Nets can bring cowbells, yahoo fans, cute signs and lots of noise to Games 3 and 4 (and maybe 5) and, well, do you think it will matter? The following message was written on the board in the Lakers' locker room after Game 7 of the Kings series: "4 more." Sacramento had its chance -- and blew it.
"They just felt it was their time," Shaq said of the Kings. "But, it's not their time."
No, it isn't. It's the Lakers' time, still.
Jackson accepted the trophy for the Western Conference championship and then added that it looks nice but it's not the trophy the Lakers want or expect. They already know what it looks like. They've got more than a few in the office already -- and a space reserved for the next one.
Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.