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In playoffs, Lakers may be tough to beat


Don't count out the Los Angeles Lakers.

Sure, the Lakers are the most disappointing team in the NBA. And last week two of the game's greatest centers weighed in with their criticism, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain slammed the team collectively and Shaquille O'Neal in particular.

But if you were to ask players in the Western Conference about teams they would least like to play in the playoffs, the Lakers would likely be one of the top responses. That point was driven home on Thursday when Los Angeles hammered the Portland Trail Blazers, 108-89.

Looking at the top four teams in the Western Conference (Utah, Portland, San Antonio and Houston), the Lakers have beaten them all. That includes winning the season series over their likely first-round opponent, Houston (2-1), as well as the Spurs (2-1). A win over Portland on Wednesday -- the final day of the regular season -- would give the Lakers the win in that season series.

There is a lot for the Lakers to overcome. Like the season-long feud between O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, who seem more concerned with shot attempts than team unity. And the constant change this season, with the trade for Glen Rice and the disruptive short stay of Dennis Rodman.

Bryant might wind up being the youngest player in NBA history to average at least 20 points for a season (the 20-year-old is right at 20.0), but he is far from polished as a player.

His shoot first/pass later mentality has irked O'Neal and other teammates. And the second-year player still has to learn about discipline, as evidenced by his refusal to double-team Charles Barkley during the loss to Houston on Monday, even as coach Kurt Rambis loudly and repeatedly urged him to do so.

"It was a miscommunication. Not even really a miscommunication," Bryant said. "I felt I had a feel for the game out there as far as how we were going to play Charles."

Chamberlain criticized O'Neal's leadership and his defense -- particularly his blocked shots and rebounds.

And on closer examination of his numbers from his rookie season until now, O'Neal's averages in rebounding (13.9 a game as a rookie, which ranked second in the league, to 10.7, which ranks seventh) and shot blocking (3.5 per game as a rookie, which ranked second in the league, to 1.7 now, which is not among the top 10) are down.

What can help the Lakers is if O'Neal takes the personal criticism leveled at him in recent weeks and turns it into a positive. O'Neal, at his best, is unstoppable. And if he enters the playoffs playing as if he has a point to prove, the rest of the Western Conference had better watch out.

The envelope, please

With the abbreviated NBA season coming to a close on Wednesday, here are my postseason honors:

MVP: Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs: Among the top 10 in the league in scoring, rebounding and blocks and second in the league in double doubles.

Rookie of the Year: Vince Carter, Toronto Raptors: Almost reminds you of another 6-foot-6 guard from North Carolina.

Coach of the Year: Pat Riley, Miami Heat: Despite numerous injuries, his team -- despite recent poor play -- still might finish with the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Most improved player: Joe Smith, Minnesota Timberwolves: Former Maryland star showed consistency for first time in his career.

Best defensive player: Alonzo Mourning, Miami.

Best sixth man: Darrell Armstrong, Orlando.

All-NBA: First team: Duncan; Karl Malone, Utah Jazz; Mourning; Gary Payton, Seattle SuperSonics; Allen Iverson, Philadelphia 76ers. Second team: Chris Webber, Sacramento Kings; Kevin Garnett, Minnesota; O'Neal; Tim Hardaway, Miami; Jason Kidd, Phoenix Suns.

All-defensive team: Kendall Gill, New Jersey Nets; Mourning; Duncan; Payton; Theo Ratliff, Philadelphia.

All-rookie team: Carter; Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics; Mike Bibby, Vancouver Grizzlies; Jason Williams, Sacramento; Matt Harpring, Orlando Magic.

Around the league

In a dismal season with little to celebrate, the Chicago Bulls will get a chance to visit their glorious recent past Wednesday, when the team honors former coach Phil Jackson.

Former Sen. Bill Bradley (a teammate of Jackson's with the New York Knicks), Bill Fitch (Jackson's college coach) and former assistant Tex Winter are among Jackson's friends who will attend the event. The Bulls will raise a banner in honor of the last year's championship, and a banner in honor of the coach who led the team to six NBA titles.

Milwaukee guard Sam Cassell (Dunbar) said he will return for the postseason. Cassell has been out since re-spraining an ankle March 21, the only game he has played for the Bucks.

"If I'm not ready, I'll make myself ready," Cassell said. "I'm not going to rule out the whole season because I know how much this team needs me."

Before Tom Gugliotta's return to Minnesota on Wednesday for the first time since leaving the club, the Timberwolves organization planned to run a top 10 list on the scoreboard of reasons he left.

Gugliotta turned down the T'wolves' offer of seven years, $86 million in January, signing with Phoenix for six years, $58 million.

The top 10 was scrapped because of fears it might be too mean.

Several list items that went to waste: "Didn't want to pay Minnesota taxes on the extra $30 million he left behind," and "Math not a required course at North Carolina State."


"You never know which Karl Malone is doing the talking, anyway. Is it the one who says he's never playing in Utah again? Or the one who is crying at a podium after renegotiating his contract -- for the fifth time. Or is it the one who refers to himself in the third person? You might as well call him Sybil."

-- Phoenix coach Danny Ainge, in a tirade after a Malone elbow left Suns center Joe Kleine with a cut that required 30 stitches and minor plastic surgery.

Pub Date: 5/02/99

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