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Impending Gloom?

Rest of league is writing them off, but Lakers aren't buying it

May 05, 2003|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

SAN ANTONIO — Their image has become that of a tired champion, holding on with guile and a handful of jersey, winning with two men's work and a referee's wink, the Lakers really in for it now, tonight, when the Western Conference semifinals start here.

A summer's reinforcements have yet to arrive, so there is a sense among basketball observers that if the Lakers somehow survive this, against the Spurs, a team they could not beat in four regular-season tries, there is only slaughter waiting in Sacramento.

Ask the broadcasters. The columnists. The ex-players.

On Sunday afternoon, the Lakers boarded a jet bound for south-central Texas and a best-of-seven series anyway. As Shaquille O'Neal said at the edge of the practice floor Sunday, "I don't care what you earthlings write."

The Spurs have the NBA's MVP, its coach of the year, its best regular-season record (with Dallas) and its most beautiful person, the last by decree of People magazine, noted purveyor of perceptions. Their center gives them the win-one-for-the-old-guy theme, in case all the other stuff doesn't work.

The dangerous thing about the Lakers, though, is they still think they're the Lakers, just as Jack Nicholson, seated half a court away, really believes he's Jack Nicholson. They couldn't be more similar if Phil Jackson, at the opening tip, pushed back his chair and slipped on a smirk and a pair of Ray-Bans.

When their season was half done and so, it seemed, were they, the Lakers won 50 games anyway, with three of the best months in the O'Neal-Kobe Bryant-Jackson era. When the Minnesota Timberwolves showed up unimpressed, won two of the first three games in the first round and talked of having someone on the ropes, the Lakers won the next three games anyway, going away.

The younger, more athletic team was gone again, just as the New Jersey Nets were last June, and before them the Sacramento Kings, and before them, right, the Spurs again.

Bryant sat Sunday afternoon in El Segundo, reclined on an exercise bike, amused. He didn't win the MVP award, as he might have at the end of February. He didn't win the scoring title. Tracy McGrady was eliminated Sunday. He was just a 24-year-old kid, already thick in NBA titles, and unconcerned with the doubts.

"Some people view us as a bleeding dog, just lying there, waiting to die," he said. "We don't feel that way. We don't think that's the case."

He shrugged, did that thing where he talks out of the side of his mouth, when he's really dismissing something, or somebody.

"I find it funny. I find it entertaining," he said. "I heard a little bit of it when we went down, two [games] to one, [Kevin Garnett] made his comments. I saw a lot of people on TV making comments. I think people are expecting us to disappear. We're not going anywhere."

Thing is, they seem to have aged more than a year since June. Rick Fox tore a tendon in his foot and is done for this postseason. Derek Fisher has his shooting stroke, but Robert Horry's is hit and miss, and everyone's pretty sure the Spurs have been playing for this series since last year, the last time they were run off the floor. The Lakers won the best-of-seven against them last year in five games, the best-of-seven the year before in four.

Still, they practically have to explain why they're here, to the people who are surprised to see them in the second round.

"You know, there's the familiarity-breeds-contempt kind of syndrome that goes along with having won and being in this position," Jackson said. "But we've got an underdog's role coming through this year's playoffs. As much as we had to struggle early in the season to get our game on track, we played as well as anybody but San Antonio, or as well as San Antonio, during the last three months of the season. So we feel qualified.

"San Antonio's got a deeper, more athletic bench. We know we've got lesser numbers than they have. They've got a lot of weapons off their bench that can contribute. We just have to be focused and do the things we've done very well against them in the past, and that's make them finish ballgames down the stretch, and have to go into Duncan to do their scoring."

O'Neal, of course, had little patience for the questions or the people who asked them. This will be viewed as his success or his failure, because he is bigger and better than everyone and, by now, used to the heavy lifting.

"People are tired of seeing us," he said. "They want to see us get beat."

If they do, few will be surprised, other than the ones with the most to lose. Bryant grinned.

"Shaq's like a bleeding dog," he said. "I'm more of a bleeding black cat."

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