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A Couple of Words for Lakers as They Set Out to Defend Championship: Good Luck

October 30, 2000|J.A. ADANDE

The logic seems simple. If the Lakers were good enough to win the championship last season, if they bring back most of the same personnel, if those players learned what it takes to win a ring, then why can't they win it again?

The unseen bump ready to trip up that argument is the one thing no player or coach can control. Luck.

Fortune, fate, karma--whatever you want to call it, it's an essential part of any championship season.

It's about staying healthy, avoiding the awkward step or bad landing that could lead to an injury. It's about favorable bounces, lucky rolls, calls going in your team's favor.

Already the Lakers have won a small victory by escaping the preseason relatively unharmed. That's more than they could say last year, when Kobe Bryant broke a bone in his hand and sat out the first month of the regular season. And it's more than most teams in the league can claim.

Portland's Arvydas Sabonis is out for several weeks after surgery on his knee. New Jersey's Keith Van Horn is out 4-6 weeks because of a broken leg. Indiana's Jalen

Rose (broken wrist) could miss a month. Charlotte's Derrick Coleman is still sidelined while adjusting to medication for an irregular heartbeat. Phoenix's Penny Hardaway has knee problems. Again. Atlanta's Dikembe Mutombo contracted malaria. And the big downer, Miami's Alonzo Mourning will sit out the season because of a kidney disorder.

The Lakers deserve a bonus for escaping a preseason that included the trouble capitals of New Orleans and Las Vegas without any major incidents. You can bet that wouldn't be the case if Dennis Rodman were still around.

It's easy to pinpoint where some of the Laker repeat efforts of the past went astray. When James Worthy was taken off the Forum court on a stretcher after breaking his leg near the end of his rookie season in 1983, there went that ring. Or Magic Johnson, grimacing as he grabbed his hamstring at the Palace of Auburn Hills in 1989, realizing that the chance to "three-peat" was gone.

In retrospect, it's easy to see the moments last season that indicated a championship was in the making. Little signs, far off like ships on the horizon, steadily growing closer and larger until you realize it's a supertanker coming your way, and it isn't about to stop.

For the Lakers, the first one came on a February night in Orlando, when defeat seemed imminent and all of a sudden Shaquille O'Neal stole an inbound pass, dribbled to the other end of the court and dunked to send the game into overtime, where the Lakers won. It was an MVP play, a championship play.

There was the three-point play at the end of that March 26 game in Sacramento, when O'Neal made a layup and was fouled, enabling the Lakers to escape with a 90-89 victory at Arco Arena.

They kept making just enough plays to pull games out. If the Lakers are to win it all again, they'll have to maintain that same type of resourcefulness in the close games; last season they were 8-1 in games decided by three points or less.

In the playoffs, the percentage was even better: 3-0. And all came at pivotal moments, games that could have changed the course of the series: Bryant's jumper to beat Phoenix in Game 2 of the second round, Ron Harper's winning jump shot in Game 3 at Portland, and Bryant's overtime heroics in the fourth game of the finals at Indianapolis.

The Lakers lived on the edge. But almost any championship team, no matter how dominant during the regular season, has to learn to squeak by in the playoffs. And the Lakers should only be more comfortable in those situations this year.

The other lesson the Lakers learned last year was the importance of home-court advantage. They won the first and last game of every series at home. In all, they won 11 out of 13 home playoff games, losing only Games 2 and 5 against Portland. And there's no way they come back from 15 points down in the fourth quarter of Game 7 if they played that game in the Rose Garden.

In order to gain the best record in the league and the home-court advantage that goes with it, the Lakers must take advantage of their early schedule and jump off to a good start. Once they get past that opener at Portland (an ambush in the making if there ever was one), it gets more favorable. Of their first eight home games, only two are against teams that made the playoffs last season.

The Lakers went 36-5 at home last season, to go with a 31-10 road record. They could be even tougher at home this season, now that they're more familiar with the environment and have a better idea of traffic flow getting downtown. (Don't underestimate the benefit of knowing the right routes to Staples Center. Last season, several visiting teams arrived late because they got stuck in traffic.)

Will the Lakers be satisfied with their title?

O'Neal, for one, still looks and sounds hungry. He knows that everyone who knocked him before for never winning a championship will knock him for "only" winning one. Bryant's appetite continues to grow--sometimes, it seems, on a daily basis.

The Lakers won last year because the two members of The Combo stopped battling and were willing to share the ball and the spotlight. So far this season, the two appear to be even more in tune with each other . . . to the point that Coach Phil Jackson thinks they need to get their teammates more involved.

As great as O'Neal and Bryant can be, the Lakers will need the secondary players to step to the front--the way Brian Shaw did with nine points and seven rebounds in that regular-season showdown at Portland, or Robert Horry did by scoring 17 points in Game 4 of the finals.

Is it too much to expect the Lakers to match their nightly intensity, their clutch play, their bonus contributions and avoid major injuries again? Can they remember what it was like? Well, the best thing about being the defending champions is the experience is still fresh in their minds.


J.A. Adande can be reached at his e-mail address:

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