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NBA PLAYOFFS / GAME 4, PHOENIX 117, LAKERS 98 | BILL
PLASCHKE

No Sweeping Statement

Humiliating loss to Phoenix shows that despite having the NBA's best regular-season record, the Lakers are still in search of an elusive knockout punch.

May 15, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE

PHOENIX — We've been waiting three weeks for the Lakers to make a statement, a real postseason statement, not some meaningless opening-game banter or desperate deciding-game scream.

We've been waiting for the NBA's best regular-season team to put on the sort of consistent display that would remind the rest of the league--and, OK, us--exactly where they are headed.

Well, that statement has been made.

It was Sunday in Phoenix.

It was loud enough to be heard from Los Angeles to Portland.

It was this:

The Lakers are beatable.

The Lakers can be outhustled, outfought and outworked.

The Lakers have strengths that can be slowed and weaknesses that can't be hidden.

The Lakers may be the best team, but they are no longer the cinch team.

At this point, if they played the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference finals as expected, they might not even deserve to be the favored team.

Although this statement was made during Sunday's humiliating 117-98 loss to the Suns in Game 4 of the conference semifinals--ruining the Lakers' chance to sweep a four-game playoff series for the first time in 11 years--it is not a one-game panic.

Rather, a one-game awakening.

For the entire 48 minutes Sunday, the Lakers were swallowed whole by a malaise that has been nipping at their heels for weeks.

An offense that sits on its lunch boxes and waits for Shaquille O'Neal or Kobe Bryant to pick up the shovel.

A defense that allows quicker teams to form layup lines.

The power forwards combining for three points.

The shooting forward making four of 14 shots.

And now, eerie speculation.

If Bryant doesn't hit that last-second shot in Game 2 . . . and the Suns don't miss nearly all of their last-minute shots in Game 3 . . .

"I'm sure it has crossed the Lakers' mind that they could easily be trailing this series, three games to one," the Suns' Penny Hardaway said.

Something else has surely crossed the minds of the Trail Blazers, who also lost a possible series-sweeping game to Utah Sunday but are looking deeper and stronger. The Blazers must be thinking, outside of Kobe and Shaq, this team is too tired and confused to guard any of them.

"The Lakers are a great scoring team, but they don't have a defense that can shut a lot of people down," Hardaway said.

The problems are far bigger than this series, which should still end Tuesday in Game 5 at Staples Center.

The Lakers have played nine postseason games.

They have played well, from start to finish, in only four of them.

They have lost, or could have easily lost, the other five.

That's not even a winning percentage, much less a championship percentage.

Even their esteemed coach is going a little nutty.

According to Ron Harper, Phil Jackson did not address the entire team at halftime, with the team trailing 71-48.

Instead, said Harper, Jackson relied on his veteran guard to give the scolding.

"I told them that we should be embarrassed," Harper said. "Giving up 71 points in one half? I told them that everybody in my house had already turned off their TV sets."

Then, in the final 18.4 seconds of the game, Jackson called two timeouts, but didn't address his team either time.

Scott Skiles, the Suns' coach, became so irritated he called his own timeout during that span.

Was Jackson upset that the Suns were running up the score?

We can only guess because, well, there was somebody else Jackson refused to fully address, that being the postgame media crowd.

He entered the media room only long enough to say: "We got a royal . . . whupping out there. I've nothing to say, no questions to answer. Except to say happy Mother's Day to all you mothers out there."

Our favorite purveyor of life lessons oddly failed to adhere to the one about being accountable in failure as well as success.

What the heck. Maybe this yucky stuff is contagious.

"There are really no excuses," Glen Rice said of his team's play.

Perhaps not, but there's a city full of people getting a little itchy for explanations.

How can a 67-win team play perhaps its worst game of the year during its most important stretch?

How can a team that had winning streaks of 19 and 16 games fail to put together three consecutive good games now?

One reason could be, this is not that same team.

After playing at such a high level for so long, some of the players seem tired. Not just physically, but mentally.

Glen Rice has been disappearing. A.C. Green has sometimes failed to show up. Ron Harper's mental toughness loses some battles with his physical limitations.

Whenever Shaq has been on the bench in this postseason, sometimes it seems as if the only person putting his foot to the floor is Kobe.

And you know what happens when that happens.

"We haven't shown we have a knockout punch, that's the bottom line," Green said. "To beat a team in the conference finals, you have to have a knockout punch."

They've shown other things in this postseason, just enough to tease us into thinking those were the only things.

They've shown they can dominate games against lesser opponents at home.

They've shown they will not blink in close games down the stretch.

But about that knockout punch . . .

It was missing until they were on the ropes against Sacramento.

It was missing when common sense called for it against Phoenix.

The Lakers need to find it before it finds them.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Scoring Breakdown

Phoenix 117, Lakers 98

Starters vs. Bench

Lakers

Starters: 69

Bench: 29

Suns

Starters: 84

Bench: 33

*

Team Breakdown

Lakers

Shaquille O'Neal: 24

Kobe Bryant: 23

Rest of team: 51

Suns

Cliff Robinson: 32

Jason Kidd: 22

Rest of team: 63

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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