Crunch time, so real Lakers making noise


ONE SUSPECTS that MVP Kevin Garnett will sniff some vapors, eat some Wheaties and overcome fatigue from his amazing performance in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals. Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell can make mischief, too.

So let's assume the Los Angeles Lakers won't trudge through the Western Conference finals, administering workmanlike defeats to the Minnesota Timberwolves in straight sets. At least we assume.

In the meantime, in the long run, the Lakers look unbeatable. Look at what they did in Game 1 Friday night.

Gary Payton down on the block, working his height advantage over Cassell. It's not pretty, but it works, especially if it keeps Payton feeling like a useful, productive member of society.

Kobe Bryant giving himself up, dishing out six assists and appearing to be - operative word "appearing" - really excited that he wasn't launching 899 shots, yet his team was able to win. Or is it Shaquille O'Neal's team? Karl Malone did to Garnett what he did to Tim Duncan when the Lakers roared back from being down 2-0 to the Spurs, winning four straight.

All these years, the 40-year-old Malone has chafed at young guns coming into the NBA, getting all of David Stern's marketing glory without ever doing a lick of work. Where's the justice in that? Now look at Malone. He doesn't need a ring to justify his place in the NBA's all-time pantheon, but why not get one, reap the accolades he didn't get along the way, when fans were preoccupied with Penny Hardaway or Vince Carter, on windmill dunks instead of picks and rolls.

Now, Malone has taken on two of the greatest players of the next generation and soundly nullified them, at least so far.

Then there's Shaq. Enough said.

Unbeatable. Or is that unbeat-a-Bull, the way Michael Jordan's crew used to look, back in the day? That's right. It's that time. The early bird catches the worm, so stack these Lakers up to champions past and see what we see, unless anyone really suspects the Timberwolves, Pistons or Pacers have a chance.

With the two-time, three-peating Bulls, the addictive fascination was to look and see if anybody could actually stop them - or Jordan.

The flawed aspect of the Shaq/Kobe Lakers, even this season, is that you didn't watch to see if anyone could beat them so much as you wondered if and when they were going to beat themselves.

Raise your hand if you'd rather eat roasted cicadas than hear Shaq and Kobe battle over whose team it is. Kobe this. Shaq that. Phil Jackson this. Jerry and Jeannie Buss that.

Shaq loves the triangle offense. Kobe ignores it. Gary Payton wants more touches. And it's Malone's injury enabling the "depleted" Lakers to turn it off and on at whim.

This wasn't a championship season as much as it was The Days of Our Lives. Thank goodness Horace Grant has seen it all and is still around to translate the war of egos. A call to Jerry West, who lured Shaq to L.A. in 1996, then traded picks to draft Bryant, revealed the former Lakers architect unwilling to give us insight into how and why these two stars continue to circle and nip at each other like high-strung show dogs.

Some think Dennis Rodman was a major distraction for Jordan's Bulls, but there was nothing that could derail the steamrolling Jordan, who did not wait until being down 2-0 in the conference semifinals, the way the Lakers did against the Spurs, to turn it on.

If memory serves - and who can't remember? - the Jordan/Rodman Bulls of 1995-96 won a record 72 games, effectively establishing that championship season to be the best ever.

Maybe that's the standard these Lakers should have aspired to. When you put four future Hall of Famers on one roster, give them a coach whose nine NBA rings tie Celtics legend Red Auerbach, it's safe to assume that anything less than an NBA championship is failure.

Likewise, rolling through the regular season with a yeoman-like 56-26 record and a No. 2 seed in the playoffs just doesn't quite titillate the imagination of basketball fans everywhere who expected the star-studded Lakers to have established their legacy long before going down 2-0 to the Spurs.

Grudgingly, it might be time to accept that this season's Lakers are not the New York Yankees of the NBA. Malone and Payton signing on with Shaq and Kobe is not like all the free-agent baseball stars who take the express train to the Bronx.

Yes, the Yankee wannabes say winning the ring is the thing. But Reggie Jackson, Mike Mussina, Roger Clemens, Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield were paid top dollar to try and win one. With Payton and Malone, it wasn't about money or taking the best-team-ever label from the '95-96 Bulls. It wasn't about anything except where the Lakers appear to be heading right now: Titletown in Tinseltown.

Time to watch this collection of Hall of Famers get down to business. Finally.

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