Who's afraid of the big, bad champs?
By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist

After losing to the Kings last Christmas, the Lakers fell to 11-19, and even the possibility of qualifying for the playoffs seemed like a pipe dream.

"We've lost our aura of invincibility," Kobe Bryant moaned. "Nobody's afraid of us anymore." Since then, the Lakers have gone 24-7, and are back in the hunt for a four-peat.

Most recently, Shaq has regained much of the mobility he'd lost to his preseason surgery, and Kobe has been playing with patience and discipline. But has the Lakers' recent volte-face been sufficient to restore their aura and once more strike fear in the hearts of the pretenders to their crown?

Let's take a look at their chief rivals:

Dallas Mavericks
Even though the Mavs have the NBA's best record, bet your bottom dollar that the thought of playing the Lakers early in the postseason has them quaking in their hand-tooled Neiman-Marcus boots. With all of their quickness, their skills and their defensive gimmicks, the Mavs are simply too soft in the middle to overcome the Lakers.

The Mavs' still lead the Midwest Division by four games over San Antonio, with only about 20 games left in the regular season. Should the Spurs gallop past them, Dallas would fall to the No. 3 seed -- and if the Lakers can hold off Utah, the Mavs would face off against the defending champs in the very first round of the playoffs. If this scenario comes to pass, the Mavs will be hog-tied and branded as losers by the end of April.

Dallas can't beat the LAL with a stick, and both teams know this to be true.

Sacramento Kings
What about the Pacific Division-leading Kings?

Chris Webber
If Chris Webber sticks to his outside game, the Kings are done.
They're still bellyaching about what they perceived as bad officiating that cost them Game 6 in last season's Western Conference finals. And Chris Webber and Vlade Divac have gone on record as claiming that they are the "real" champs.

The truth is that good and/or bad officiating is strictly in the eyes of the beholder. And that one of the primary characteristics of championship teams is the ability to overcome adversity. The Lakers did, and the Kings didn't.

In any case, the Lakers-Kings matchups are certainly intriguing:

Mike Bibby can be counted on to bury Derek Fisher.

Despite Doug Christie's arrogant belligerence, Kobe routinely steals his allowance and eats his lunch.

Rick Fox can frequently defuse Peja Stojakovic's explosive offense.

Chris Webber likes to avoid contact and would rather shoot jumpers against either Mark Madsen or Robert Horry, an option which the Lakers also prefer to his high-scoring, foul-drawing adventures in the paint. (Indeed, the Lakers would be delighted should Webber take 50 jumpers every game.)

Divac has the knack of being able to resist Shaq's lead shoulder, thereby turning the big man baseline for his unorthodox and unreliable simulation of a jump shot.

With Bobby Jackson, Jim Jackson and Keon Clark, the Kings' bench is infinitely more potent than the Lakers' scrubs.

But the most telling differences between the two teams are power and an authentic self-esteem that's based on real, not imagined, success.

While no team of professional athletes would ever admit to being afraid of an opponent, the Kings must certainly be bedeviled by significant doubts: Perhaps they are chokers ... maybe Divac's habitual grouches and flops are counter-productive ... how will the refs screw them this time?

Should the Lakers somehow fall behind Utah, a first-round pairing of Los Angeles and Sacramento would be a joy to behold.

San Antonio Spurs
An even more compelling opening-round match-up would result if the current standings remain intact, i.e., the Lakers retain the sixth seed, and Sacramento fails to supplant Dallas. Then we'd see the Spurs and the Lakers.

Tin Duncan
As always, the key the the Spurs success is Duncan.
Deep in the hearts of these particular Texans, the defending champs are unquestionably respected, but certainly not feared.

Position by position, the Spurs can equal the Lakers talent and poise:

At the point, Tony Parker can run rings around Fisher. However, Fisher is rawhide tough, plays well in big games, and is adept at forcing his opposite number into help spots.

Bruce Bowen is a dangerous 3-point shooter and, more importantly, can defend Kobe as well as anybody can. The trick for Gregg Popovich is to make sure that Bowen has enough available personal fouls to play aggressive defense in the fourth quarter.

Emanuel Ginobili is a savvy player with quick hands and an accurate jumper. Fortunately for the Spurs, neither Rick Fox nor Devean George can capitalize on Ginobili's serious shortcomings on defense.

The Spurs biggest advantage is at the four spot, where Tim Duncan can easily overwhelm Madsen or Horry. The Lakers don't like to double-team post players, but Duncan forces their hand. The obvious danger is that Bowen, Ginobili and the ever-improving Parker rarely miss open jumpers. With a game on the line, however, the Lakers have also asked Shaq to play Duncan one-on-one with surprisingly good results.

The most dominating mismatch is in the middle, where Shaq against David Robinson suggests an aircraft carrier taking on a rowboat. In addition to a steady attack of double-teamings, Duncan, Kevin Wills and Malik Rose will all take turns fouling and otherwise trying to scuttle the Big Charging Foul.

As ever, the Lakers' thin line of pine brothers seems inadequate against the likes of Rose and Stephen Jackson.

Under Phil Jackson's tutelage, the Lakers are programmed to use the early rounds to sharpen their game plan. Should they be compelled to go bone-on-bone with the Spurs right out of the box, however, they'll either be ready or they'll be routed.

It's entirely possible that a first-round series between Los Angeles and San Antonio will, in fact, determine the NBA championship.

Portland Trail Blazers
What about the Portland Trail Blazers, arguably the most talented team in the West? Are they afraid of the Lakers? Yes! They're also afraid of the bogeyman, of the sky falling, of lightening and of thunder. But, most of all, the Blazers are afraid of themselves.

Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."



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