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After a Very Regular Season, They Must Do Something Extraordinary

April 18, 2003|MARK HEISLER

Having put another regular season (mercifully) to bed, what can we do but join with the Lakers in our traditional prayer:

Thank heavens, that's over!

Yes, even though you're charged real (big) prices to attend, the NBA's dirty secret, which the Lakers have dedicated themselves to exposing, is that its season is a simple qualification that the actual contenders -- this season, the Lakers and Sacramento Kings -- can't mess up if they try, even if one of them is 11-19 on Christmas and doesn't get over .500 until the day before the All-Star break.

Not that the season is meaningless, affording a few good teams -- San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks -- a chance to become actual contenders. For everyone else -- the entire East -- it's just a way to make a living while dreaming of catching lightning in a bottle.

It's not that lightning is never bottled, but it doesn't happen often, as opposed to getting hit by the lightning.

In 1969, the Celtics rose from No. 4 in a seven-team East, went on the road all through the playoffs and won Bill Russell's last title in a Game 7 in the Forum, under the balloons Jack Kent Cooke had penned up for the Lakers' celebration.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 19, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Pro basketball -- It was incorrectly reported in a Sports article and a photo caption Friday that the Minnesota Timberwolves have defeated the Lakers the last four times the teams have played in Minneapolis. The Lakers defeated the Timberwolves on March 14 in the teams' most recent meeting there.

In 1995, the defending champion Houston Rockets, who had fallen to No. 6, dodged elimination in five games, three of them on the road, and triumphed in Coach Rudy Tomjanovich's "never underestimate the heart of a champion" spring.

In 1999, the Knicks, No. 8 in the East, won three series on the road to reach the NBA Finals, before the Spurs squashed them.

So, three teams have done what the No. 5 Lakers must; thus no one can say it's without precedent.

As you and Coach Phil Jackson understand by now, the Lakers are different. At this point, they're either the mightiest fifth-seeded team in NBA history, or have just staged one of the worst title defenses in NBA history, or both.

It's not a good idea to write off a team with the game's mightiest tandem. On the other hand, they were close enough to the blade last season when seeded third.

Personally, I'm curious to see how many times Robert Horry can camp out on the arc on the last possession, with everyone else under the basket beating the stuffing out of each other ... only to see the rebound go rolling out to Horry ... who picks it up and makes the winning shot, as he did against the Kings in last spring's pivotal Game 4 ... and again here this season against the Pacers.

Once was a goose-bump moment in Lakerdom. Twice was way off the charts. Expecting a third, of course, would be pushing it, but then, that's what the Lakers do.

This makes three consecutive title defenses and three seasons they've punted, in ever more casual fashion. The last dynasts, the Chicago Bulls, were seeded Nos. 1, 2, 1, 1 in four defenses with Michael Jordan. The Lakers have been seeded 2, 3, 5 in their three.

Note the downward trend, suggesting an increasingly dysfunctional kind of powerhouse, or, put another way, this may be paradise but there's a storm front moving in.

For better (in spring), or worse (the rest of the time), the Lakers reflect the virtues and flaws of their leaders, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.

The big problem is, it's harder and harder for O'Neal to get excited these days, especially now that he needs the first four months of the season just to get in shape.

In the meantime, his eyes are everywhere but on the prize.

His favorite nickname, MDE, for Most Dominant Ever, isn't a brag but a fact in a league that regards him with reverence, or awe. Not getting that, he still goes about collecting incidents of "disrespect," as when he yelled at two low-level employees for putting on a video tribute to Michael Jordan, when Shaq's 20,000th point had gone virtually uncommemorated.

The Lakers were waiting to get the ball back from Sacramento, where it was presumably being dusted for fingerprints in an attempt to find the vandal who desecrated it. This was, of course, rude by any standard of behavior ... except that of the Laker-King rivalry, in which it was just what Shaq might have expected, after he'd sneered at the Kings as "Queens."

For his part, Bryant brims over with energy and ambition, making the role he has to play hard for him, resulting in experiments along the way, as when he barely bothers to shoot in first halves, a development Jackson recently called "astounding."

Jackson, who gets rapped for sleeping while Lakerdom molders, has to content himself with coaching the 10 other guys, or as Brian Shaw recently called them, "Us peons."

Confronting the Big Two, and especially the Big One, means risking a blowup, like O'Neal's snit in the middle of last season's Spur series, which Jackson chooses to defer until the spring, tra la.

The popular myth is that the Lakers chill through the season, waiting to throw a switch in the playoffs.

The truth is, 10 of them go batty, while they hear their contributions dismissed and their names in trade rumors, as they wait for their two stars to come into alignment, as they have this month

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