Let us dispense with the Eastern Conference posthaste: "Banner fodder" is how one Western coach labels the top teams in the East. It's been fun watching the improvement of the New Jersey Nets, the Detroit Pistons and the Boston Celtics, as well as the late-season rampages of the Toronto Raptors and the Charlotte Hornets, but, people, the champion will come out of the West.
The Mavs and the Kings are among the most potent offensive teams in recent NBA history—in an era when scoring is down, both averaged more than 100 points this season, ranking them 1 and 2, respectively. And San Antonio, in a showdown with the Lakers (March 20 at the Alamodome), at last got a gutsy effort from David Robinson against Shaq in a 108-90 victory. Another point for the Spurs: The addition of Bruce Bowen gives them a defender who has a shot at containing Bryant.
The Lakers answer: The Kings are a bunch of jump shooters who want no part of a tough, inside game; the Mavs can't guard a broom closet; and when the time comes, we'll sneak up behind the Spurs and yell "Boo!" as we did last season when we swept them in the Western finals, winning Games 3 and 4 by 39 and 29 points.
The Lakers also believe this: They have Kobe and Shaq, and that means the Duncs and the Dirks don't amount to Bogart's hill of beans. They may be right. These days Kobe and Shaq are working in harmony off the court as well as on. Shaq has been bummed about both his toe and the rough treatment he's been getting—apparently angry about an ejection in an April 9 game against Utah, he skipped out on the following day's practice, drawing a nominal fine from Jackson—and hasn't been his usual amicable self of late. But Bryant has stepped into the breach, secure in the knowledge that this is his team as well as Shaq's. Before last week's game against Minnesota, Bryant modeled the commemorative uniform of the night (baby blue with yellow lettering to honor the old Minneapolis Lakers). "I like the look," said Bryant. "Brings out my buffness." It was the perfect note, keeping things light. Then he went out and scored 28 points. At 23, Bryant is probably going to get better, and he's already better than any other noncenter; one Kobe trumps, say, a backcourt of Steve Nash and Nick Van Exel (and that's no knock on those Mavericks worthies).
When all is said and done, though, Sacramento still looks awfully tough. While Shaq was piquing, the Kings were peaking, winning 11 of their last 12 games. They have a defensive presence ( Doug Christie is good enough to take Bryant out of his game in spots); they have a mix-it-up big man ( Scot Pollard) who will commit some hard fouls and take pressure off starter Divac; they have a coach ( Rick Adelman) experienced in playoff basketball; and they have home court advantage.
Is that enough to beat the Lakers?
Consider this a firm...maybe.