Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Inside Sports: Lakers (Final Edition)

This is a blog, right? I can do what I want.

Last week the San Antonio Spurs took away the Lakers chance at a fourth straight NBA championship. There was a certain symmetry to it. The Lakers had regularly humiliated the Spurs during the playoffs for the last several years, often because the Spurs collapsed in the fourth quarter. This year in the sixth game the Spurs were very determined to win the fourth quarter, and it was the Lakers who collapsed. The series was essentially won in the fifth game. Last year it was clear to me that whichever team won the fourth game in the Lakers-Sacramento Kings series would win that series, and would then win the NBA championship. I felt the same way about the fifth game of this year's Lakers-Spurs series. Last year the Lakers won the fourth game on a last second three point shot by Robert Horry. This year the Lakers lost the fifth game on a last second three point shot by Robert Horry that went in, and came out. Their admirable comeback from 25 points behind in the third quarter fell just that short.

In the end it may have been sheer exhaustion that did them in. But now that Dallas has won the first game in the western conference finals, the Lakers should be really kicking themselves. If Kobe Bryant had hit that late fourth quarter free throw in the first game, they would have won that one. If Robert Horry's shot had gone down, they would have won that game. Despite losing one of their starters (Rick Fox), having his replacement miss a game and a half and be hobbled for much of the rest of the series, watch their coach go off for a heart operation, plus play at an intensity they are no longer used to, every other day, with nagging injuries to Shaq, Kobe, Horry and probably Derek Fisher, they still almost beat the much deeper and younger Spurs. They handled Dallas pretty readily in the regular season, and might have had a far less stressful conference finals once they got past San Antonio.

But it was not to be, and now the Lakers team that won three championships will slowly or quickly break up. (Samaki Walker is certainly gone, and Robert Horry probably is.) There are precedents for teams that miss a year in a string of championships, but it's likely that next year is the Lakers last chance for awhile. If they pick up some superior young talent (if you consider Juwan Howard young) and perhaps one of those still able but aging free agents out there, like Karl Malone or Scottie Pippen (Pippen knows the system but may want too much bucks; anyway, my personal favorite is still getting Michael Jordan to play one more year for his favorite coach, who is probably will be coaching his last year), they can still make a run because they can still compete with San Antonio, Sacramento and Dallas. This was the iffy year anyway, since they couldn't afford to seriously improve the team because of salary caps. They have more room next year. We won't know until the finals if any of the eastern team can yet compete with almost any team from the west. But it would be a surprise.

As for me, my season is also over. Fortunately I've got three years of playoff victories on tape, to watch with pleasure and with no tension from the comfort of an exercise machine.

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