Work in Sports
Finally, the Finals
Lakers look to quench their title thirst against Pacers
Posted: Wednesday June 07, 2000 03:25 PM
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
LOS ANGELES -- Early in the frenetic fourth quarter of their Game 7 classic against the Portland Trail Blazers, something finally clicked for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Sure, there are those who insist that there was a lot more choking going on by the Blazers than clicking by the Lakers in that series-clinching win in the NBA's Western Conference finals.
Still, something happened in that game. Something new for these Lakers, perhaps. Something strange.
And maybe, just maybe, it was the start of something special.
"It has come easy," L.A.'s Glen Rice said of the Lakers' rise to the top of the league. "I think [the comeback against Portland] proved something we knew all along -- that we have the will to continue fighting."
The Lakers clawed their way out of that double-digit fourth-quarter hole, sent the Blazers home and now strut into Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Wednesday night aiming to unleash whatever they may have found on the Indiana Pacers.
Easy favorites to grab their first title since 1988, the Lakers have shown throughout their 67-win season that they can be very, very good. The problem always has been their inability to finish the job.
They have lost games they had no business losing. They win, critics say, when they should dominate.
They cruise -- maybe even let up -- when the game, or the series, is in hand.
"I think we get kind of relaxed," Lakers guard Brian Shaw admitted. "It takes -- I don't want to say our backs against the wall -- but sometimes we need to be in a situation where we have to do it."
The Lakers led the Blazers three games to one in the conference finals and had a slam-dunk Game 5 in L.A. But they bombed in the Staples Center, lost again in Portland in Game 6 and were only minutes from one of the biggest collapses in postseason history Sunday before their memorable fourth-quarter run.
L.A., by the way, also was forced to a deciding Game 5 in the first round of the playoffs, against bottom-seeded Sacramento.
"That [comeback] showed us what Phil has been telling us all along," said Shaw, "that when you have a team down, you have to dismantle them. Take them apart."
The Pacers, the best team in the Eastern Conference and a team that already has beaten the Lakers once this season, have little NBA Finals experience. Indiana is a former ABA franchise making its first appearance in the Finals in the 24-year NBA history of the club.
Still, this is a team loaded with playoff-savvy players and a team that easily could put the Lakers in a position to scramble once again,
The Pacers had to face one elimination game, in the first round against Milwaukee. But they did what they needed to do from there and put the pesky New York Knicks away in the Eastern Conference finals with a decisive Game 6 win in Madison Square Garden.
The Pacers may not be as talented as the Lakers -- just ask the Pacers -- but they know how to win.
More importantly, they know how to put people away.
"We hope," Pacers guard Reggie Miller said, "they overlook us."
The Lakers have the dominant player in this series in center Shaquille O'Neal, the league MVP and scoring champion. They also have 21-year-old guard Kobe Bryant, maybe not yet an equal to O'Neal, but someone who can take over a game, too.
The Pacers have a scorer in Miller, arguably the best pure shooter the game has ever seen. They have a cast that includes up-and-comers like guards Jalen Rose and Travis Best, rebounding fanatic Derrick McKey and bench spark Austin Croshere.
If the Lakers aim to put away the Pacers, all they have to do is make sure they win at home. The first two games of the Finals, and the last two, if needed, are at L.A.'s Staples Center. Teams with the homecourt advantage in the NBA Finals have won the title 75 percent of the time.
"I think we're still learning to be champions," Lakers guard Derek Fisher said, "and being a champion means learning how to finish the mission. We have not learned that yet, to be honest."
Now they get another chance.