Friday, April 16, 2004


It's been a hard year to follow the Lakers, or even to like much about the NBA. The Lakers have been crazy: brilliant in stretches, and dispiriting in others. They've also been beset by an almost unbelievable series of injuries. Literally no starter or even regular player has avoided getting hurt, some for long periods of time (Karl Malone, Horace Grant, Rick Fox) and some with multiple injuries (Kobe Bryant) and chronic ones (Shaq.) And the psychodrama has been pretty unattractive.

It seems that major players on many teams had serious injuries this year, perhaps due to the increasingly "physical" play. Both the injuries (which throw teams into unbecoming chaos) and the trend towards hockey or football style of play have made NBA games less fun to watch.

Soon the playoffs start, and I feel more conflicted than usual about spending the time watching them. When they got Karl Malone and Gary Paton, the Lakers thought they had a dream team but so far it's been more like a nightmare. At times when they jelled, they seemed unbeatable, but most of the time their team flaws were very evident. Other teams know their vulnerabilities. They can be outplayed with speed and intensity.

Which Lakers team will show up? That's often been the question, not only because of the lineups changed by injuries, but by attitude. Shaq is having trouble focusing, even when he apparently wants to. Or so it seems.

Their first round series with Houston may tell the tale. The teams match up well, and the Lakers can't lose focus or intensity, but must use their experience. If they play hard and well, they could dominate. If they fool around and try to win games in the fourth quarter, they could lose the series, or even win the series but lose the war---the next round.

It will be too bad if it's decided by injuries. For a brief moment towards the end of the season, the Lakers had their starting five playing. But then Rick Fox got hurt again, and in the last game of the regular season, they lost Karl Malone again, as well as their two main remaining bench players (Derek Fisher and Deavon George), both of whom have been starters. All of them are expected to be back, but when, and how effective will they be? Horace Grant's injuries are keeping him out of the playoffs altogether, and several other players are hurt.

The Lakers could win the championship, but right now they'd do it as underdogs. Minnesota has the hottest team, and defending champion San Antonio the strongest combination of playoff experience and playing well at the end of the season. But anything could happen. The Lakers could struggle every round, and win them all. Or they could totally dominate certain teams, or all of them. Or they could be gone after six games.

It seems the drama will be Kobe. With his dashing from court room to court, and the mercurial moments he has and the Lakers have surrounding him, together with his immense talent at the top of his game---he just won the Lakers last game, and the Pacific conference championship, with two impossible shots, an off-balance long three pointer to tie the game at the end of the fourth quarter, and a touch-and-shoot three pointer at the end of second overtime with one second on the clock to win the game.

But with that expectation, odds are it will be someone else who makes the difference. Someone unexpected. Besides to see the residual beauty of the game, I guess that's why I'll watch. Starting Saturday.

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