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by James Escarcega / April 16, 2002

So here we are basketball fans. On the eve of the 2002 NBA Playoffs, the most asked question around Southern California is not whether the Los Angeles Dodgers can make it to the World Series. And it’s not whether the Los Angeles Kings can advance past rival Colorado in the first round of the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs.

The foremost thoughts of sports fans in the area is “Can the Lakers win their third consecutive NBA championship?” It’s a question that has dominated the front pages of sports section and taken a huge chunk of time on the sports radio talk shows.

If the Lakers are going to march down Figueroa Street in a ticker-tape parade celebrating another NBA title, they will have to do it the hard way (not that if there is an easy way in the NBA these days). And the team that Coach Phil Jackson will be fielding for the playoffs this postseason will have a decidedly different flavor to it. Let’s take a look back to the 2001 championship team and compare it with this year’s squad.

Last year, the Lakers finished the season winning the last nine games of the season and intimidating many of its opponents in the process. This season, they will head into postseason play with the humiliating loss to the
Portland Trail Blazers on national TV squarely on their minds. It is obvious that this year’s squad hasn’t won many of its games with the style we are used to from the champions.

Last season, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal played like men that we focused on one thing – winning the NBA championship. In the process, they had every opponent watching them in awe and scratching their heads in
amazement. That can’t be said about this year’s team

O’Neal has shown flashes of brilliance at different times of the season, but it is clear that he is not playing at the same level as he was last year. He’ll concede that his toe has hampered him for most of the season, but there is still considerable doubt if O’Neal can regain the powerful form that he showed in the playoffs last year.

If you ask any NBA insider, they will tell you that the key to the Lakers winning a title lies in the backcourt. Last season, Derek Fisher was the perfect compliment to Kobe. He passed to the ball to Bryant brilliantly and hit some key shots down the stretch of some critical games. The real surprise of the Lakers playoff run last season was the performance of Tyronn Lue. His tenacious play of defense – which included a superb performance
against Philadelphia’s Allen Iverson in the Finals – drew rave reviews from the typically non-chalant Phil Jackson.

The Lakers lost Lue to the Wizards via free agency and his absence has been noticeable. The Lakers attempted to fill in the void by signing free agent Lindsey Hunter from the Milwaukee Bucks. However, Hunter has failed miserably at the position and has seen his minutes drop significantly during the final three weeks of season.

RIVALRIES

“Rivalries are made in the playoffs,” Celtics forward Paul Pierce recently said. “There are no regular-season rivalries.” The Lakers could very well be renewing some of those rivalries starting in the first-round with Portland. Last season, the Blazers had as much harmony as some of the guests that frequent “The Jerry Springer Show.” The Lakers took full advantage of the situation and handed the Blazers three of the most humiliating losses the franchise has ever seen.

There is no doubt that the Blazers are a more improved team this year, thanks in part to the acquisition of Ruben Patterson (a.k.a The Kobe Stopper) and could be a formidable foe for the Lakers in the first round.

When you factor in the Dallas Mavericks, want to drive home the point that they are ready to challenge the Lakers, and Sacramento’s desire to make it to “the big show” – a task made easier with the home court advantage they will enjoy this post season - and you can easily see that Lakers will be a marked team in the playoffs.

And we didn’t even talk about San Antonio.

Las Vegas has tabbed the Lakers as the early favorite to win the NBA championship. But it is clear that the they are not the clear-cut favorites as many have anointed them.

James Escarcega is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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