The question no longer seems to be whether the Los Angeles Lakers are vulnerable in this NBA's postseason, it's how vulnerable are they? Though they may well finish with the league's second-best record—L.A. was 56-24 through Sunday, behind only the Sacramento Kings' 60-20—the two-time defending champions have suffered an inordinate number of ignoble defeats, losing to the most execrable teams in the league ( Chicago twice, Golden State, Memphis, Denver and Atlanta). Last Sunday in Portland, they blew substantial leads in both regulation and overtime before losing to the Trail Blazers 128-120 in double overtime. Shaquille O'Neal has missed 12 games because of a sprained right wrist and an arthritic right big toe and three others because of a suspension for fighting. One of L.A.'s supposedly key off-season acquisitions, Mitch Richmond, is so far out of the rotation that he'll have to be excavated before he can report to the scorer's table. Kobe Bryant looks bad in a headband (he's worn it twice and may pull it out again); Rick Fox looks bad in bald; and Mark Madsen, on those rare occasions when he's asked to join the fray, looks bad period. All that, and coach Phil Jackson is shilling for Marriott.
Will one big purple-and-gold sympathy card suffice, or do you want to mail out individual ones?
Still, a few days from the beginning of the seemingly endless postseason, L.A. is once again—what else?—the favorite. Ask 100 people around the league if the Lakers, barring a season-ending injury to either O'Neal or Bryant, will be beaten, and 80 will probably say no, 15 maybe and five yes. "The regular season is the preseason to them," says Miami Heat forward Chris Gatling. "They're so far ahead of other teams that they can blow off games and it doesn't affect them. In the playoffs they'll tighten up the ship." Bill Walton presents the case for maybe. "The key to beating L.A. is really revving up your offense," says the television commentator. " Shaq and Kobe are going to get theirs, but you can outscore the rest of the guys. Sacramento and Dallas have tremendous offenses that could—and I say could—do that" Dick Harter presents the case (sort of) for yes. "The Lakers haven't played as well this season," says the Boston Celtics assistant, "and I don't think they're going to win it. That's just my gut feeling."
It's a feeling that, while not widely held, is out there in the postseason breeze. Here are some of the reasons behind it.
Shaq's a broken-down truck.
Physically and mentally, Shaq is not the same player he was during either of the last two championship runs.
The Big Aristotle has been the Big Dog on more than a few occasions this season, having never gotten into top physical shape after preseason surgery on his right pinkie toe. Then, too, the persistent pain in his big toe has been a factor in his lack of conditioning—he puts the chance of off-season surgery at 80%. Anyone who thinks Shaq doesn't play hurt should kick a dining-room chair a few dozen times barefoot, then put on sneakers and run around the block "Last year Shaq wasn't in great shape until the last part of the season, and then he was in phenomenal shape," says Larry Brown, whose Philadelphia 76ers were dumped in five games in the Finals as the Lakers completed a 15-1 postseason run. "As a result, they were a phenomenal team. I'm not sure he's in that same condition now."
Partly because he's playing in pain, Shaq has reacted angrily on more than a few occasions to the physical pounding to which he's routinely subjected. (He's had three flagrant fouls this season.) Look for some teams—Portland being one of them if it draws the first-round matchup—to go at him combatively.
The Lakers answer: The big fella has simply been biding his time. And he's too smart to be provoked when the money's on the table.
Even with an injury, Shaq's supremacy over every other interior player in the NBA remains unchallenged. In a game last Thursday night against the visiting Timberwolves, for example, he looked slow and uninterested and sometimes seemed to be moving in a vat of gelatin when the hyperactive Kevin Garnett was near him. At the end of the game Shaq had 32 points and nine rebounds in a 96-83 Lakers victory. Quite an off night, eh? As long as the big toe doesn't put him on the shelf, says Chicago's Jalen Rose, "they're going to be tough to beat."