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Original Issue

Dear Lakers: An open letter reminds the L.A. juggernaut that there's still one more round to go

Before congratulating you on your second straight NBA
championship, I feel it necessary to call your attention to a
sporting event called the Eastern Conference finals. This little
affair might have been lost in all the hype surrounding your
showdown with the San Antonio Spurs, but to complete your title
drive league rules compel you to play the winner of this series,
Games 3 and 4 of which took place on Memorial Day weekend at the
Bradley Center in Milwaukee. By the way, Milwaukee has taken to
calling itself the Genuine American City. That's one tag you
can't hang on L.A., eh?

Anyway, I want to remind you of your potential opponents in the
Finals, particularly since you went a combined 1-3 against them
in the regular season, back before Alphonse O'Neal and Gaston
Bryant became brothers in arms. They are the Philadelphia 76ers,
an amazingly resilient bunch who tied the Eastern finals 2-2
with an 89-83 victory on Monday (Game 5 was scheduled for
Wednesday in Philadelphia), and the Milwaukee Bucks, a talented
band of perimeter specialists who whipped you in both of your
regular-season matchups. A Lakers repeat is what we in the word
game call a fait accompli--Coach Phil can explain that to the
rest of you or give you a book that does--and you're probably
eagerly anticipating as little opposition from the East as you
got from the Spurs.

Even if the Sixers don't reach the Finals, you should consider
mailing them a congratulatory note--they are, after all, the first
summer-league team to make it this deep into the postseason. With
MVP and scoring champion Allen Iverson sitting out last
Saturday's coyote-ugly Game 3, which the Bucks won 80-74, coach
Larry Brown gave key minutes to, in no particular order, Todd
MacCulloch, Raja Bell, Rodney Buford and Kevin Ollie. Brown's
next move may be to use Li'l G, the midget who stokes up the
crowd at home games.

Iverson returned to action on Monday, still nursing a backside
injury that is officially called a bruised left sacroiliac joint.
So painful was Iverson's posterior that, after being bumped by
teammates during the Game 2 lineup introductions in Philadelphia,
he winced and said, "I hurt my ass." But Iverson gutted it out in
Monday's win, scoring 28 points while 76ers center Dikembe
Mutombo dominated underneath (17 points, 15 rebounds).

Whichever team reaches the Finals, immediate story lines present
themselves, and your fans in Hollywood love story lines. An
O'Neal versus Iverson matchup has been anticipated by many NBA
observers since last November, though it would be slightly less
appealing now, with Iverson's butt in a sling. "He stands like an
old man," said Bucks shooting guard Ray Allen of Iverson after
Game 2. Thoughts of someone with an octogenarian's posture
challenging Kobe Bryant are not pretty, but as you Lakers know,
Iverson is nothing if not gritty. When healthy, he's also fully
capable of going off against you, as he did on Feb. 14 in Philly,
scoring 40 points in a 112-97 Sixers win.

At the very least there will be an entertaining debate over the
MVP voting, which, as I'm sure you remember, Coach Phil
considered insulting to third-place finisher Shaq. O'Neal's
opposite number, Mutombo, will provide you with some amusing
moments too. On occasion (particularly if Iverson is on the
bench), the Sixers are forced to throw it to Mutombo on the low
block, initiating an aesthetically painful sequence. After
receiving the ball, Mutombo sticks out his backside and goes into
a kind of full-body shimmy, either to create space or to ward off
evil spirits. While turning toward the middle he takes several
dribbles that, in the tradition of his fellow Hoya, Patrick
Ewing, can be better described as bounce-catch, bounce-catch,
bounce-catch. Then he takes two l-o-n-g, whistle-worthy steps and
releases an off-balance shot that defies classification. If the
24-second clock has not expired before he fires, you'll have
plenty of time to double-team him, should you be so inclined.

If Milwaukee makes it to the Finals, double-teaming the post is
one thing you won't have to consider. See, in coach George Karl's
offense, there is no post. The Bucks, though, do have a few guys
you should worry about, particularly the 6'5" Allen. Actually,
we've all been worried about Allen since he took to painting his
toenails in the team's colors (green and purple) throughout Round
2 against the Charlotte Hornets, which seemed to confirm the
comment Karl made about his star's toughness earlier this season:
"I call him Barbie Doll because he wants to be pretty."

In Hollywood, Allen would be cast as the anti-Kobe, for he is
that rare star who does not bring da noise, does not bring da
funk. Allen was fabulous in Milwaukee's 92-78 Game 2 victory, for
example, but his 38 points went almost unnoticed, so fluid and
economical are his moves, which include going to his left to fire
a drifting jump shot that is close to unstoppable. Just as Coach
Phil once wanted more out of you, Kobe, so does Coach George want
more from Allen, whom he considers too nice to be the leader of a
championship team. "If your best player is a little bit of a
turd, a little bit mad all the time, then it's easier for the
team to develop a tough attitude," says Karl. See, that's a
difference between coach and player right there: Allen would
never use the word turd. But Karl has a point. In Game 3 Allen
passed up an open 12-footer to get the ball to backup Darvin Ham
because it was a designed play. Yeah, as if you'd run that play
all the way through, right, Kobe?

This leadership issue is something you Lakers can relate to. Are
you Shaq's team or Kobe's? Even with All-Stars Allen and Glenn
Robinson on the floor, point guard Sam Cassell has no doubt about
who's in charge. "I'm what makes this Bucks train go choo-choo,"
says Cassell, whose 24 points held otherwise shaky Milwaukee
together in Game 3. Should he make the Finals, you will have fun
with this man, but be warned: Do not let him seduce you. As he
said last week, "Who can resist the Sam Cassell smile?"

Finally, if Milwaukee is your opponent, you should expect
colorful exchanges between the coaches. Karl has warmed up by
taking potshots at the Sixers, failing to show the proper
concern for Iverson's injury ("I hope he's banged up and
continues to be banged up") and dissing the 76ers' vaunted D
("Let's just say they have a tremendous defensive reputation.
What they have is an amazing ability to foul and not get called
for it"). All the while he has hinted that he's only doing what
Coach Phil does, i.e., draw attention--and pressure--from his
team to himself. Karl has already come up with one billing for
the Finals. "It'll be the Zen master versus the steelworker,"
says Karl, a Pittsburgh native.

Well, that's about it from the East. You guys enjoy your 10-day
rest, even though the task ahead hardly looks formidable. If the
Sixers make it, you'll be able to use that who's-the-real-MVP?
gambit for motivation in the Finals. If it's the Bucks, you need
only consider that they have a center named Ervin Johnson, whose
game is not Magical in any sense of the word, while at that
position you deploy the most formidable man on the planet. Sure,
strange things happen in sports, but I'm guessing that it's O.K.
to start formulating parade plans.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MANNY MILLAN Anything butt Despite being hobbled, Iverson (3) has been a match for Allen in the games that he's played.