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Lakers confident as postseason begins
by Ken Turetzky / April 19, 2003

As far as Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant are concerned, the Lakers are still on top of the hill, looking down on a lot of sweating, struggling, statement-making challengers. Other teams posted better regular season records, but L.A. still wins the psychological game.

“I think teams are more worried about us than we are worried about them,” O'Neal said before a convincing, late-season victory on the road against the Dallas Mavericks. “I still say a team would have to play a perfect game to beat us four times in a series. I don't see any team in this league capable of doing that.”

Barreling into the playoffs as a low seed denied the benefit of home-court advantage only presents an interesting challenge to Bryant. Although just 24, he's in his seventh NBA season. He averaged a career-high 30 points per game this year.

“I agree we don't have to have home-court advantage,” Bryant said. “We didn't have it last year when we played the Kings in the Western (Conference) Finals, and everybody was doubting that we could win.

“Playing catch-up this season, we have had to dig deeper into our bag of tricks a little earlier than we usually do. Physically, it's been more demanding because we had to shift into playoff gear earlier. But come playoff time, we may find an even higher level of energy.

“That would make it more enjoyable at the end of the day, because when you go through your ups and downs and people really doubt you, you have nobody to rely on but each other.”

The Lakers, however, are vulnerable. While O'Neal remains a powerful offensive force, he's 31 and somewhat less mobile after offseason surgery to remove bone spurs from his arthritic right big toe. He missed the first 12 games of the year, contributing to L.A.'s 3-9 start. O'Neal said the surgery provided a slight increase in mobility, but no relief for the pain. “Was (the surgery) considered successful?” he said. “Yeah. But it still hurts.”

Key frontline players Robert Horry and Rick Fox have each played more than a decade in the league. They're slowing down, along with point guard Derek Fisher, who needed surgery on his right foot prior to last season. Bryant has played almost 42 minutes a game on a sore right knee.

Defensively, the Lakers no longer contend the jump shot as well as in past seasons. Further, head coach Phil Jackson has mystified Bryant with his directives to take on the scoring load at times, seek a “balance” at others. “Our personalities will always clash,” Bryant said of his relationship with Jackson.

As point guard for the Dallas Mavericks, Derek Harper helped his team take the Lakers to seven games in the 1988 Western Conference Finals. The Lakers won it all that year for their fourth and final championship under coach Pat Riley. Harper, now the Mavericks' television analyst, explained why he believes the Lakers' current run will end this year.

“I think they're totally vulnerable this year as a basketball team. The biggest reason is that they've gotten away from what has really made them a solid team, and that's defense.

“People talk about Kobe and Shaq, but this team was so good defensively” in past seasons, Harper said. “All of their role players -- Derek Fisher, Robert Horry, Rick Fox -- have taken a step back in that area. As a result, they haven't won as many games.

“In the past, teams were in awe of the Lakers. They're not afraid of them anymore. They don't mind seeing the Lakers this time around.

“Age is a factor. The other thing is being content,” Harper said. “You can't tell me after you've won three straight championships that you have the same desire and hunger. You might think that you do. But when you win a championship, you've gone all the way. You don't prepare the same way to get ready for the following season.”

Penny Hardaway, O'Neal's teammate with the Orlando Magic when they lost to the Houston Rockets in the 1995 NBA Finals, offered a slightly more positive assessment of the Lakers' outlook. “A lot of teams are playing well this year and (took advantage) when Shaq was hurt early,” said Hardaway, who now plays in the Phoenix Suns backcourt. “They've done a great job to be where they're at right now. They've won before without home court advantage and they believe in their ability. But it's gonna be a tough road.”

When Robert Horry explains why the Lakers are in good shape for the playoffs, his argument carries considerable weight. A 6-10 forward with long-range shooting skills, Horry won back-to-back NBA titles with the Rockets in 1994 and 1995 before he added three more with the Lakers.

“We're coming together pretty good, you know. We're doing the things we need to do to get things going,” Horry said, his eyes never leaving a locker-room video screen replaying an early-season 26-point defeat to the Mavericks. “Our defense can use some help but the playoffs are a totally different thing because you get to focus on one team for six or seven days. We find (the opponent's) weaknesses and exploit them.

“Don't go by the beginning of the season. When you look at us from the All-Star break forward, you get a better outcome.”

Horry winced at the sight of a teammate's mistake on the videotape. “We had a string of bad luck; a couple of games where every loose ball, every bounce went the other team's way. We're usually the ones getting the loose balls.

“I don't think it's (due to) a lack of focus,” Horry said, before reconsidering. “I guess you could say that it was.”

But until the Lakers lose, they're still the favorite. More than one critic has suggested the Lakers will “flip a switch” and enter championship mode once the playoffs begin. Then they'll become the first team to win four straight titles since the Boston Celtics won eight in a row from 1959-1966.

“No, we don't have a switch that we turn on,” Bryant said. “We build it gradually. It's something that starts slowly, and we grow it, step by step, as we build our rhythm for the playoffs.

“Every year's been different,” Bryant said. “That's the beautiful thing about the NBA. Every year poses a new challenge. It's about solving that puzzle.”

Ken Turetzky lives in Texas and writes about the NBA for numerous publications

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