EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — You would think there would be nothing unprecedented in the winning department for a franchise and a coach so rich in championships.
The Lakers have won the NBA title 13 times in two cities. Phil Jackson is halfway toward opening his own jewelry shop, having coached his way to eight rings.
But they've never swept a team in the NBA Finals.
Up three games to none against the New Jersey Nets, the Lakers and Jackson have their chance tonight. And they could also earn a distinction among the other four champions that have won three consecutive times: They could become the first team to win three championships in only 15 Finals games.
In other words, their total of three Finals defeats would be the fewest of any for a team in a three-year run.
A three-peat with only three-beat.
"We want to make history," Shaquille O'Neal said. "It'd be history for Phil, history for a lot of us."
And it could turn about some personal history for O'Neal and Brian Shaw, who were on the Orlando Magic team that lost in four games to Houston in 1995.
"Even waking up this morning and looking at ESPN, it was 'Oh, the last team that was swept in the Finals was the Orlando Magic by the Houston Rockets,' " Shaw said. "That's something that's always out there that you have to live with. Unfortunately, for myself and for Shaq, we feel bad, we know what it feels like from the '95 Finals. Now we have an opportunity to make somebody else feel like that."
It's one more way this group could distinguish itself, record its deeds in stone rather than pencil.
The team that won a record 12 consecutive road games over the last two playoffs could establish a new mark of eight consecutive Finals victories. They have already topped the previous record of six, set by the Rockets in 1994 and 1995.
Which brings us back to that last sweep, as seen by the other side. Robert Horry played for the Rockets then, and he said a sweep adds something to the championship.
"It kind of lets the league know that you came to play, and what you did was no fluke," Horry said. "It's a special sense when you go out and are able to sweep a team."
How special are the Lakers? That really has been the only thing subject to debate in these NBA Finals. Whether the Nets could win the series was never seriously discussed, and few are even bothering to ask if the Nets can win a game. More and more of the questions put to the Lakers the last two days have turned to the topic of their legacy.
In some ways a sweep could harm the Lakers as much as it would help them. It would be further evidence of the weakness of the field out there. It's the Roy Jones Syndrome: no great boxers in the weight class to validate the greatness.
When the Lakers won in six games in 2000, they beat an Indiana Pacer team that lacked a superstar. The Pacers had a star in Reggie Miller, a player who has made as many big playoff shots as anyone in recent memory. But he isn't a transcendent player. The fact that it took him 13 years to reach the Finals--despite a solid supporting cast that stayed together longer than most groups in the NBA--reflects that.
Last year the Lakers beat the league's most valuable player, Allen Iverson, and the Philadelphia 76ers in five games. But the 76ers didn't have any other threats, and what players they did have were all hurting. (Remember, though, they had heart).
The Nets have Jason Kidd, considered the best point guard in the league right now, runner-up to San Antonio's Tim Duncan in the MVP voting.
After that they have a trio of hopelessly overmatched centers getting tossed around by Shaq. They have a No. 2 overall pick that has trouble earning playing time in the fourth quarter. They have a coach who is 144 playoff victories behind Jackson.
And now they're on the verge of being swept.
A Finals sweep is almost as rare as a three-peat; there have been only six sweeps. The Lakers have been on the losing end of three of them: to Boston in 1959, to the Philadelphia 76ers in 1983 and the Detroit Pistons in 1989.
Injuries played a role. James Worthy was out and Norm Nixon and Bob McAdoo were hurt in 1983, and Magic Johnson and Byron Scott tore hamstrings in 1989.
But there's no mention of that on the first page of the NBA postseason record book, where the NBA Finals results are listed. That's the thing about cold facts. They diminish the need for speculation or interpretation.
One of seven teams to sweep, one of four teams to three-peat, the only team to do it with only three Finals losses. Win tonight and the Lakers can say all of the above.
"I think it will put us up there," O'Neal said. "We've been together a long time. We've been through a lot of hard times, more good times than hard times. But I think it will put us right up there with all the other great teams."
And, in some ways, above them.
J.A. Adande can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.