It was just over a year ago that the Los Angeles Lakers proved to be a talented -- and clueless -- bunch. They were facing elimination against the Utah Jazz in the 1997 Western Conference semifinals, and the only player seemingly willing to take a big shot was fresh out of high school, Kobe Bryant.
Bryant fired up four air balls. Utah won the series in five games, leaving a season-long desire for revenge.
"I wanted to play Utah because they're the best, the Western Conference champions," Bryant said last week. "They're the best in the Western Conference right now. We want to dethrone them."
The Lakers get just that opportunity starting this afternoon when they face the Jazz in Game 1 of the conference finals.
And after dismantling the Seattle SuperSonics in five games, it appears the Lakers are a much more mature and confident team, one that's capable of exacting a bit of payback against Utah.
"They're probably playing as well as anybody in basketball," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said of the Lakers. "But they should. Their talent level is probably better than anybody in the league."
That talent is led by center Shaquille O'Neal, who has averaged 29.9 points in the first two rounds. O'Neal's scoring, passing and rebounding make him one of the league's most dominant players.
"Where you see his improved play is not just in the scoring and rebounding, you see it at the defensive end," Lakers coach Del Harris said. "He's not afraid of anything. He's got it all."
Including the brute force that might be necessary in a series that is certain to become physical. There are hard feelings between these teams, which surfaced when O'Neal slapped Utah center Greg Ostertag in an off-the-court encounter during the shoot-around before the first game of the season.
The tension was heightened by Jazz center Greg Foster's finger-across-the-neck gesture during a regular-season game.
The Lakers vowed revenge and, in the regular-season finale, Foster was clobbered by Los Angeles forward Rick Fox on a drive to the basket.
Harris may have caused more bad blood last week when he labeled Karl Malone -- who has a tendency to lead with his feet -- a dirty player.
"It's getting blatant," Harris said. "I'm more concerned about the potential injury factor to Malone's kicking technique, how when he shoots the ball he tries to kick people. It's developed into a habit, and he doesn't need it."
The response from Malone and the Jazz? Very little.
"This is basically what I'm going to say: it wouldn't be a series unless somebody had something negative to say," Malone said. "I'm going to play and do my job and not get caught up in all that.
"I've been playing that way for 13 years. I'm not going to change now because someone said something."
What the Jazz is focused on these days is winning an NBA title, an achievement that eluded the team last season.
"It's not enough," Malone said, when asked if he would be happy just returning to the NBA Finals.
"Excuse me for not being excited about it right now. I've been there, done that. To get to the next level you have to win [the title]. We realize that."
And to do that, the veteran Jazz must defeat one of the best, up-and-coming teams in the league. Utah is hoping that its experience is a deciding factor.
"We have older guys who have been there, I think we have something on them there," said Utah reserve forward Antoine Carr. "You have to fail in order to know what success is."
Pub Date: 5/16/98