SI Vault
Jack McCallum
May 19, 2003
Phil Jackson's ticker isn't the only indication that Western teams are vulnerable
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
May 19, 2003

How The Mighty Are Falling

Phil Jackson's ticker isn't the only indication that Western teams are vulnerable

View CoverRead All Articles

At week's end, suddenly, it was possible to imagine a scenario in which the winner of the NBA's dominant Western Conference would lose in the Finals, either because of plain mala fortuna or because old weaknesses had resurfaced or recent ones had become more manifest. Consider this updated look at the four Western semifinalists:

?The three-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, whose regular season had been something of a soap opera, turned the Western semis into a prime-time drama—specifically, ER. Coach Phil Jackson, who for a week had complained of tightness and chest pains, underwent an angioplasty last Saturday morning in L.A. to clear his left anterior descending artery, which had become more than 90% blocked. The two-hour procedure came about 12 hours after Jackson had coached the Lakers to a 110-95 victory over the San Antonio Spurs in Game 3 and about 24 hours before he watched L.A.'s 99-95 series-tying Game 4 win at home. He called in one halftime order to acting coach Jim Cleamons: Tell our guys to start setting screens instead of just exchanging places. The 57-year-old Jackson made the trip to San Antonio for Tuesday's Game 5 at the SBC Center, but if health concerns prevent him from being with the Lakers for an extended period, he would be missed.

?Blowing a 16-point first-half lead and losing Sunday's game without Big Chief Triangle on the opposing bench was irritating enough to the Spurs, who should have taken a 3-1 series lead. But the way they lost was painfully reminiscent of previous San Antonio postseason failures. There was, for instance: two-time MVP Tim Duncan's inability to produce against the Lakers in crunch time (despite a game-high 36 points, he missed a key free throw, committed a turnover and made only one field goal in the final 2:52); a dearth of offensive options beyond Duncan (while Duncan attempted 20 free throws, teammates Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were the only other Spurs to get to the line); and faulty decision making by 21-year-old quarterback Parker (who threw away an inbounds pass with 14.2 seconds left and the Spurs down by three).

?Losing a coach is one thing; losing a double double mainstay, as the Sacramento Kings did, is far more serious. Sacramento showed much character in its 99-83 series-tying victory over the Dallas Mavericks in Game 4 on Sunday night, achieved without five-time All-Star Chris Webber, whose expected arthroscopic knee surgery likely will sideline him for the rest of the postseason. But should the Kings get by the Mavs in this track meet of a conference semifinal (939 points were scored in the first four games), Webber's absence will become more significant, particularly at the defensive end.

?For fans of the retro NBA, in which fast breaks were something that happened by design, not by accident, the Mavericks are truly a marquee team. During last Saturday's 141-137 double-overtime Game 3 win in Sacramento, quicksilver Dallas guard Nick Van Exel (40 points) delivered improbable shot after improbable shot, and theretofore buried-on-the-bench Walt Williams contributed 10 key points in the last 10 minutes. But Sunday night's 16-point loss to the Webber-less Kings was revelatory: an utter surrender when Dallas should have grabbed the series by the throat. The Mavs were the most exhilarating team in last year's first round, too, until an inability to defend and a lack of toughness inside doomed them. Those weaknesses persist, alongside Dallas's we'll-just-outscore-you philosophy.

Look, the Western champion will still be the favorite when the Finals begin in June. But isn't it interesting to discover that this season's basic operating principle—that the Eastern representative will prostrate itself at the feet of the Western champion—is perhaps flawed?