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After a Season in Which They Did Almost Everything Right, Tonight at Staples Center, the Lakers Suddenly Have . . .EVERYTHING TO LOSE

Game 5: Despite a desperate situation against the Kings, Jackson is taking a confident approach.


Far more suddenly than anyone could have dreamed, the Lakers find themselves high on the tightrope, nowhere to go but directly, perilously forward--or down.

Maybe most other coaches at this vantage point would jangle the nerves, circle the wagons and plead for every last percentage of emotion and sweat from his players.

Maybe every other coach, under pressure and under the microscope, would do that and more.

But, on the eve of the Lakers' deciding Game 5 against the Sacramento Kings tonight at Staples Center, Coach Phil Jackson on Thursday took a decidedly calm detour, asking his team to face this moment with unshakable confidence and moderate pulse rates.

If the Lakers are meant to win--if they are good enough and calm enough--Jackson said, they will. No more, no less; no yelling, no frantic battle cries.

"I told them . . . 'If you can't survive in this kind of adversity at this point in the playoffs, then we're not going to hang together as a group. Why even go on?' " Jackson said.

"This is what makes the test, that makes champions; this is what toughens you up to be a championship team. This is why we're here, in this position--to have this opportunity. And that's why you embrace it, and you don't run away from it."

This is a Laker team, though, with the weight of recent history pulling at its shoulders.

Theirs is a record of not only playoff defeats, but of losing postseason games in swarms: four in a row to San Antonio last season; four in a row to Utah the year before; and two in a row to finish things against Utah in 1997.

Since the arrival of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant set loose this high-energy era, the Lakers are 0-3 when faced with playoff termination.

But this is also a team that won 67 games in the regular season to post the best record in the league, that has not lost a meaningful home game since a Jan. 22 defeat against Portland, and that squished the Kings (14-27 on the road in the regular season) in Games 1 and 2 at Staples.

"They've been real good and we've been real proud of them," Jackson said of his players. "They've played great, with the ability to control themselves, control the game, control the tempo and be dominant.

"And that's how they won 67. That's all they have to remember."

Each of the preceding 12 teams in NBA history that won 64 or more regular-season games advanced at least to the conference finals, and nine of those teams won the NBA title.

And only two No. 1-seeded teams have stumbled to No. 8s since the best-of-five first-round format began in 1984: Last season, No. 8 New York toppled Miami; and in 1994, No. 8 Denver lost the first two games to No. 1 Seattle (which won 63 regular-season games), then swept the final three.

"I'm sure that in many regards it would be easy to say, 'Why are we here?' and 'What's going on?' " Jackson said. "But the reality is, here we are.

"From that standpoint, it's great. It's great to be here, it's great to have this opportunity. We're all curious about where our boys are going to take us tomorrow and how it's going to play out and how Sacramento's going to perform.

"[Sacramento] has been a team that's not been a [successful] road team. Can they put a road game together for once in the playoffs?"

Not surprisingly, Jackson's players fell in line behind him, choosing to relish the situation, as precarious as it is.

The two losses in Sacramento won't mean anything, they said, if the Lakers reassume command tonight.

"It's a humongous challenge for us, and we're excited about it," Kobe Bryant said. "We could be [eliminated with a loss]. But that's the beauty of it.

"I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't rather sweep this team. But to be in this situation is great. . . . It's a big game. This is our first pressure big-time. We're really looking forward to it."

Said veteran backup center John Salley: "We really have nothing to lose. We haven't won anything yet, really. No one's handed us any rings, we haven't gotten any playoff money. We don't expect to lose again."

The Lakers have not been involved in a decisive final playoff game since 1993, when they lost Game 5 of a first-round series to Phoenix.

When he coached the Chicago Bulls, Jackson was involved in four decisive games, losing two (to Detroit in 1990 and to New York in 1994) and winning two (against New York in 1992 and against Indiana in 1998).

And Jackson rejected the notion that it was always Michael Jordan who took over in crucial moments of critical games--suggesting that Shaquille O'Neal, who has been bumped off of his "A" game by swarming King double- and triple-teams, shouldn't feel the need to score 40 tonight.

"What we're telling Shaquille and our team is that Shaquille is dominant, regardless of whether he's had a dominant scoring game or not," Jackson said. "He had 46 points [in Game 1, then], everything then turned to playing Shaquille.

"That means that other people are open. . . . As a consequence, Kobe's had a lot of opportunities, a lot of penetration opportunities. He's taken advantage of it.

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