Remember May 1997, when the Lakers were down 3-1 to the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference semifinals? Game 5 was coming to a tight finish, and coach Del Harris put the ball in the hands of 18-year-old rookie Kobe Bryant to try to salvage the Lakers’ waning season. Bryant put up four straight airballs, and the next thing you know, the Jazz is in the finals.
Or how about May 1998, when the Lakers — the first team to have four all-stars in 30 some years — were swept aside again by Utah in the Western Conference finals? There sat Shaq, Kobe, Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones, towels over their heads as Stockton and Malone pick ‘n’ rolled their way to a rematch with Chicago.
The next May, the Lakers were swept out of the playoffs yet again, this time by San Antonio’s Twin Towers in the lockout-shortened 1999 NBA campaign. Shaq couldn’t handle both David Robinson and Tim Duncan, and soon enough the Spurs were world champs. The Lakers, meanwhile, melted away in the hot Southern California summer.
I liked those Lakers of old. How I miss watching those overtalented underachievers fail miserably in the postseason, when their arrogance would be shut up and their games shut down by fundamentally sound, respectable basketball teams.
Boy, have times changed.
The Jazz’s pick ‘n’ roll has been stymied by the new zone defenses, San Antonio looked pathetic in last year’s playoffs, and the Lakers are two-time defending champions. And over the summer, as I held my breath in hope that the newlywed in Kobe Bryant would finally get sick of playing second fiddle and demand a trade, L.A. instead signed up Mitch Richmond, the second-best shooting guard of the last decade.
Who’s going to stop these guys?
Heading into tonight’s game at Houston, the Lake-show is a perfect 6-0. Shaq leads the league in blocks, Kobe leads the league in steals, and they are first and second, respectively, in scoring, combining for 60 (60!) points a night. On top of that, the now 23-year-old veteran Bryant is dishing out a career-best 7.2 assists a game and shooting above .500 for the first time, too. The Lakers as a team are slaughtering their opponents by an average of 13 points, and it’s not like they’ve been playing the Bulls every night — five of L.A.’s wins have come against playoff teams.
Somebody do something, please. I know MJ’s going to play the game of his life against Kobe and pull off an unbelievable Washington win in Phil Jackson’s face when he makes his Staples Center debut, but that’s not until Feb. 12, and the Lakers could be 46-0 by then.
Seriously, the Lakers could be 46-0 by then. No joke.
• Speaking of Mike, His Airness lost four games in a row for the first time in a decade last week. In one of those losses, against Seattle, Jordan went 0-for-14 before finishing 5-for-26 in the worst shooting night of his career.
• John Stockton, on the other hand, is shooting 10 percent better than Jordan both from the field and the line. The two aging guards are matching up Friday in D.C. Mark my words: no Michael Jordan game winner over Bryon Russell this time … please, Mike?
• Who’s going to stop the Nets? Allen Iverson, that’s who. AI is back and the Sixers are winning again. Enjoy being first in the Atlantic while it lasts, New Jersey fans (all three of you), because I’m telling you, it’s not going to last long.
• The Sacramento Kings’ European trio is averaging a combined 43 points, 22 rebounds, and 10 assists per game. When Chris Webber comes back, this team might start to challenge the Lakers faster than you can say “Vlade Divac, Peja Stojakovic and Hidayet Turkoglu.”
Well, maybe not that fast.