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Original Issue

Three The Hard Way The Lakers made it look easy while winning two rings in a row, but there are reasons to believe that betting on a third is no sure thing

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."

Two stars do not a team make. The Lakers' supporting cast is
weaker than it was in the past two seasons.

Horace Grant (who signed with Orlando last summer) brought more
to L.A. than the experience of winning three championships in
Chicago. Grant was a student of the Lakers' half-court offense,
the triangle; he was nearly mistake-free on defense; and he is a
deadly jump shooter from the elbow. Samaki Walker, Grant's
replacement, is an inconsistent shooter with limited range who
has suited up for only 16 playoff games in his five previous
seasons. The Lakers were getting steady contributions from
off-season pickup Lindsey Hunter, but his shooting touch (38.4%)
has gone south, and during the playoffs he will likely be sitting
next to Richmond, a onetime great who deserves a better fate than
the role that awaits him: butt-slapping cheerleader.

The Lakers answer: Samaki gives us a couple of things Horace
couldn't. And in the playoffs we won't go deeper into the
rotation than we have to.

Walker, 26, is more active around the basket at both ends than
Grant, 36, was (and is), and he's a great finisher. There appear
to be no ill effects from last month's dustup between Walker and
Bryant (What's up with Kobe?, March 18), and Walker seems to
understand his role in the binary star system that governs the
Lakers: Thou shalt rebound, defend and not bitch when Shaq and
Kobe get most of the shots and all of the attention.

Here's a question to chew on: Who is L.A.'s third-best player?
Some say Derek Fisher, the old-school guard with a knack for
hitting rainbow jumpers in the playoffs. Some say Fox, the
rock-solid defender who looked more swashbuckling (and thus more
worthy of the estimable Vanessa Williams) before he sheared his
locks. Some say Devean George, the high-flying reserve forward
who has found a niche after two seasons of relative anonymity and
who this season has shut down, among others, Orlando's Tracy
McGrady. The correct answer, though, is 6'10" Robert Horry, that
rare mix of perimeter shooter and interior defender. "Robert just
kind of floats along during the regular season," says Miami Heat
forward LaPhonso Ellis. "Then, as soon as playoffs start, he's
coming up with key defensive plays, and he's in that corner
making deep threes."

Shaq just isn't picky enough. Shaq defends the high
pick-and-roll indifferently, making the Lakers susceptible to
outside jump shots.

Sore toe or not, Shaq doesn't like to be pulled far from the
basket. Thus the Lakers try to force almost every pick-and-roll
toward the baseline rather than the middle, making them
predictable on defense. The Western teams that seem to present
the most formidable challenges have the players to exploit that
tendency--Chris Webber and Vlade Divac of the Kings and Dirk
Nowitzki and Raef LaFrentz of the Mavericks.

The Lakers answer: We think our 7'1", 335-pound human warehouse
is more effective when he's close to the basket.

"If a team tries to draw Shaq out, Jackson will throw some kind
of zone at them and force them to make tougher shots," says
Houston Rockets center Kevin Willis. Then, too, if no one
challenges Shaq in the post, he won't ever get into foul trouble,
and it's going to be double-double-Daddy-trouble for 40 minutes a
game. Anyway, look for Horry to move out and check the outside
threat from a big man; against Dallas, for example, he usually
shadows Nowitzki in crunch time.

The wild, wild West is too, too deep. The Lakers' challengers are
vastly improved.

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.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN MCDONOUGH WINNING HAND O'Neal (left) is hampered by a bum toe and fuming about hard fouls, but the Lakers are confident he and Bryant are an unbeatable pair of aces.

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Forward march Among the keys to the Lakers' drive for a three-peat are Walker (52), who bangs and runs, and Horry, who defends the pick-and-roll and can hit the big three-pointer.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK [See caption above]

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Two for one O'Neal and Bryant have shared leadership duties--and the ball--this year.

"The key to beating L.A. is really revving up your offense. Shaq
and Kobe will get theirs, but you can outscore the rest of the

Bad news for the rest of the contenders: Kobe and Shaq are
working in harmony off the court as well as on it.

The champion will come out of the West. "Banner fodder" is how
one coach labels the top teams in the East.