Lakers one win from rare air


EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Asking Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson to choose among his championship teams is akin to asking him to decide which of his five children he loves most.

Pretty soon, though, and perhaps as early as tonight, Jackson is going to have an even tougher choice: Which threepeat team does he favor, the 1991-93 Chicago Bulls, the 1996-98 Bulls or these Lakers, who, with one more NBA Finals win over the New Jersey Nets, will add this season's title to the last two.

"Chasing a third title is never easy," Jackson said "In the two times I've been part of an organization that's had the opportunity to chase the title for the third time, it's always been very difficult. And it's not harder. It's just what it is.

"You just put yourself through it and enjoy the process and the multitude of change. ... We want to play it out the way it's supposed to be and fulfill our destiny, if that's what it is."

The closest Jackson will get to a comparison is to say that these Lakers will have to win a fourth title. But, then, he said, the comparison would be not with the Bulls, but with the Lakers of the 1980s, who won championships in 1980,'82,'85, '87 and '88, and lost in the Finals in '83, '84 and '89, never winning three straight.

"They would be a dynasty in 2000, whatever this decade would be," Jackson said. "But ... they're very confident and comfortable in the playoffs and comfortable playing in pressure situations. I think people recognize them as a great team."

Two other teams, the 1952-54 Minneapolis Lakers and the Boston Celtics from 1959 to 1966, have won three straight titles, but the recent talk centers around comparing the Bulls of the 1990s and these Lakers, who, with a victory tonight, would do something no other Lakers team has done among the 13 that have won championships.

That is, sweep the Finals.

"Whenever you have a chance to make history, it's a great feeling," said Los Angeles guard Kobe Bryant. "As a team, we've been through so much. Hopefully, we can add that to our list of accomplishments. It would be great."

Besides having Jackson at the helm and playing the triangle offense, the Bulls and Lakers share the common component of having two great players at the nucleus of the attack. The pair of guard Michael Jordan and forward Scottie Pippen engineered the Bulls' operation, and the Lakers are driven by Bryant and center Shaquille O'Neal, who, like Jordan, has been a multiple Finals Most Valuable Player award winner.

Neither team had a true point guard, with Jordan and Pippen taking on a lot of the ball-handling role for Chicago, and Bryant is the Lakers' top assist man.

In addition, the two teams had valuable role players who provided key moments in the title runs. For the Bulls, guards John Paxson and Steve Kerr each hit three-pointers in series-clinching games, while Dennis Rodman and Horace Grant provided rebounding.

The Lakers, meanwhile, have turned to guard Derek Fisher and forwards Rick Fox and Robert Horry for big shots and defensive stops. Two players, Grant and Ron Harper, played important minutes for both the Lakers and the Bulls.

Hall of Fame coach and current ESPN analyst Jack Ramsay, who led the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers to that franchise's only championship, sees the Lakers and Bulls as similar, with contributors orbiting around the respective pair of stars.

Ramsay gives the nod, however, to the Lakers because of the dominance of O'Neal, who is averaging 37 points and 13 rebounds in the first three games of this series. Ramsay acknowledges the defensive presence of Bill Cartwright and then Luc Longley, who played the pivot for those Bulls teams, but says neither could have matched the sheer power of O'Neal.

"These guys were not going to give you anything," Ramsay said. "But none of them could contend with Shaq the way he's playing now. He would have gotten plenty of opportunities to get the ball inside the way they're playing. Both those teams are coached by Phil Jackson, so you wouldn't have seen the zone defense. You would see a helping defense, and helping defenses do not slow down Shaq.

"Similarly, Kobe assumes Michael's role, but this team has two guys, a big force inside and Kobe, whereas those Bulls had Michael and Scottie, both perimeter players and no post presence other than Michael. They would have had their hands full with these players."

But Jim Cleamons, an assistant to Jackson in Chicago for the first four Bulls titles, and has been in Los Angeles for the previous two on this run, casts his vote squarely with the Bulls for their ability to play defense.

"They [the Bulls] would stop them from getting the ball and delivering the ball to Shaq at certain points," Cleamons said. "We'd jump up the floor and apply pressure. If New Jersey had 19 turnovers on us the other night, I don't want to guess how many they'd have against a Chicago team when we were really trapping and coming up the floor and playing outstanding defense. Shaquille's got to wait on the ball to get to him, and if that ball never comes to him or if he's not in a position to get to it, or if he gets it and he's further out, then you're talking about a whole new ballgame."

Cleamons said he is particularly impressed with the Bulls' ability to impose their will on their opponents, a quality he finds sorely lacking in the Lakers, who started the season 16-1, but tailed off to a 58-24 mark, a far cry from the 72-10 record posted by the 1995-96 Bulls.

"This team started out in that direction, then I think they realized that they didn't have what it took to win 70 games or 72 games," Cleamons said. "To win 72 games, you've got to be focused every night on the floor. This team didn't have the capacity to concentrate to win 72 games. That's just being honest.

"You've got to become a good practice team. You've got to stay focused. Look at the teams that beat us during the year. That tells you there that they didn't have the focus to pay attention night in and night out to the detail that's needed to beat the lower echelon teams in this league. They didn't have it. That's the bottom line."

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