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No Slight Too Small to Motivate

June 14, 2002|MARK KREIDLER | Sacramento Bee

When you hear Rick Fox popping off at the Finals about his Lakers coming back stronger next season specifically to put a cork in whatever it is that's still open and spewing around King-land, you know you're onto something. Whatever keeps L.A. motivated, go with it.

The risk of this budding rivalry always has been obvious: That just as the Kings approached an apex of talent and confidence, the Lakers would get all fat and sassy and generally uninterested in going after anything more. After this season, they will have matched Phil Jackson's Chicago teams in terms of three-peat ability, and aside from wondering what dance Mark Madsen might launch into at the victory parade, what more is there to ask?

But if Fox is telling the truth--and it bears note that, so far, he's pretty much the only guy doing the squawking--the Lakers remain chafed by Sacramento's repeated assertions it had the Western Conference stolen from it by a hideous or corrupt (or both) officiating crew in Game 6. They are irritated that Rick Adelman continues to plead his team's case--nationally--long after losing a Game 7 that was the Kings' to win.

And, says Fox, the Lakers are already setting up the 2002-03 season around the concept of doing something about all of that.

You know what? It may be the only thing that works.

When Shaquille O'Neal grunted something about Adelman in the wake of the Lakers' Game 2 victory over New Jersey, he provided a wonderful glimpse into the world of high-stakes motivation. Even at this level, even with this money at stake, you'd be surprised at what tiny slights will be co-opted and transformed into things Worth Playing For, even by the elite.

But the objective truth is that the Lakers probably will never be better than they were a year ago--that O'Neal, in particular, probably will be fighting foot and ankle problems for the rest of his 375-pound career. The feeling even among the L.A. faithful is that this Laker team is a slightly diluted version of the last two champions--wonderful still, and no doubt still possessed of the world's two best players, but diluted nonetheless.

The Kings as yet have no claim on that territory, of course; you ain't won nothin' until you've won something. But 11 months from now, next season's conference finals may well begin between a Sacramento team still in its ascendancy and a Los Angeles team that is beginning to lose a step.

On the other hand, the Lakers will still have their bulletin board. If that is enough to help keep this thing on nearly equal footing for a while longer, it'll be worth every last drop of sour grape juice.

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