The prognosis from early case of playoff fever

A week of wild West showdowns taught us what we already knew: That Shaq and the Lakers are still the team to beat.

Updated: March 28, 2002, 10:22 AM ET
By Marc Stein | Special to ESPN.com

It's a week that started and ended with the Los Angeles Lakers scraping out a significant victory on a Sunday against a wannabe rival.

It's a week that featured a Best In The West Round Robin in the middle.

In sum, it's a week that made March feel a little like the playoffs. It's also a week that made you feel like those playoffs are going to be pretty good, even if those blasted Lakers are still the heavy favorites.

It's a week that merits a day-by-day review of what just happened, since maybe only Indiana and Mike Davis had a better one:

Robert Horry
Robert Horry, right, came up big in Round 1 against the Mavericks, including the winning three.
Sunday, March 17
  • What happened: It all started with a dozen Mavericks and at least that many coaches invading Staples Center. They later shuffled quietly onto Mark Cuban's 757 with Dallas' 23rd consecutive road defeat to the Lakers, a run of futility dating to -- no joke -- 1990. The Mavericks took it to the finish line, as they always seem to do in L.A., but saw late triples from Nick Van Exel and Michael Finley bounce astray after Robert Horry's killer three with 45.8 seconds to go. Lakers win, 105-103. It's Dallas' second loss of the season at Staples, by the whopping sum of six points.

  • What didn't happen: Having Raef LaFrentz alongside Dirk Nowitzki on the front line did force Shaquille O'Neal far away from the rim and for longer than we've ever seen. But if you're going to shoot 40 threes, you have to make more than 15 to make the strategy work. On this night, the Mavericks were 5-for-21 from behind the line in the second half. The Lakers actually hit the bigger triples, which might be why Phil Jackson described the evening as "one of those times we stepped into our shoes as champions."

  • What we learned: That when it matters, Jackson isn't going to be relying on the unpolished Devean George or the three newcomers -- Mitch Richmond, Samaki Walker and the really struggling Lindsey Hunter -- who haven't fully absorbed the Laker Way yet. At the end, it was Horry, Derek Fisher and Rick Fox, and Horry played as if it was June. Nineteen points, eight rebounds, a few blocks & and some of the best long-limbed defense against Nowitzki the Mavericks have seen.

    Tuesday, March 19

  • What happened: To win the rematch after 24 hours between games, the Mavericks did not need a perfect 48 minutes, as many suspected. They had to come close, though. Steve Nash ran the Lakers ragged for 30 points, zipping past them on the break or in the lane or around one of a zillion screens. Dallas was also the first to 50 rebounds -- 56-45, actually -- and held the visitors below 100 points, neither of which happens much for this team of triples hitters. The Mavericks were much more aggressive, as well, earning 37 free throws after the 40-threes experiment. It also didn't hurt that O'Neal found foul trouble before LaFrentz, in the true upset, leaving Kobe Bryant to carry the load on a night he didn't look much like Kobe Bryant. Dallas wins, 114-98. The Lakers lose to the Mavericks for just the fourth time in -- no joke -- 45 tries.

  • What didn't happen: For once, the Mavericks didn't have to field wave after wave of Do You Have A Mental Block Against The Lakers questions. Unfortunately, in their place came lots of Is The Monkey Off Your Back questions, which had to be just as annoying. Trying to maintain a little perspective, unlike their neighbors to the south (as you'll discover later), most Mavericks were wise enough not to say too much about either premise. Although swingman Adrian Griffin did let it slip that winning for once was "a great feeling." Said Griff: "I'm not going to lie to you."

  • What we learned: That the Mavs still have no answer for Shaq. They were thrilled to hold him to 32, even with Shaq playing on one foot. That said, Dallas is more than optimistic about its approach to dealing with Kobe. It's not foolish enough to call any of these guys Kobe Stoppers, leaving that sort of ill-advised boasting to Ruben Patterson, but Don Nelson has three or four guys he feels comfortable sending at Bryant. Griffin and Greg Buckner mostly traded off in this round, with Johnny Newman ailing, and the hounding that helped escort Bryant to a 4-for-18 showing dropped Kobe's season numbers against the Mavericks to 17.3 points on 36.3-percent shooting. Bryant had said beforehand that he never worries "about any one man" assigned to him. Which is why this might actually be a down-the-road concern for Jackson, since Dallas has more than one. Of course, it could also mean that Kobe will drop 40 or 50 on the tag-teamers the next time he sees them. "Make no mistake," Griffin said. "He's amazing. We'll probably see them again in the playoffs, and he'll be Kobe again."

    Wednesday, March 20

  • What happened: In Big D, the Lakers were described by their own coach as weak-minded. "Weak in mind and in body," Jackson said. He wouldn't be able to say anything that pleasant after this. The Spurs looked just as hungry as their intrastate cousins to topple the two-time defending champs and stormed them until the lead was 34 just a few minutes into the fourth quarter. San Antonio had lost the previous six meetings, including the four-and-out sweep in last spring's conference finals, so it especially enjoyed hearing that TNT eventually left the broadcast to show Michael Jordan's comeback in Denver. It was that lopsided, such a rout that Jackson would only blame fatigue to a degree. Spurs roll, 108-90. Lakers finish their portion of the Round Robin at 0-2.

  • What didn't happen: The Lakers didn't rebound from the Dallas defeat. They looked flatter. They had no answer for Tim Duncan, who needed just 29 minutes to score 25 points, and saw Shaq need 13 free throws just to reach 17 points, because he had only two baskets. San Antonio's defensive swarm led to 20 turnovers.

  • What we learned: That the Spurs' arena-operations folks apparently don't run everything past Gregg Popovich or Duncan before making its game plan. You suspect Pop and TD probably weren't thrilled to see fireworks being set off at the Alamodome after a regular-season game, even if it was the Lakers. "We'll remember that," Shaq said. So will we, but not for some cliché retribution angle. Just because it was a little condescending to the home team, which isn't that far removed from 1999's title run.

    Thursday, March 21

  • What happened: Another classic, what else? The Spurs and Mavericks no longer seem capable of anything else. Dallas won a 126-123 overtime thriller at the Dome the day after Christmas. San Antonio scored a two-point road win at the AAC on Jan. 5. So Round 3, naturally, went to the buzzer again, with huge jumpers by Bruce Bowen and Tony Parker maintaining a four-point edge for the Spurs that even two huge missed free throws from Antonio Daniels couldn't undo. The Spurs had to weather a desperation three from Finley that made it a one-point game, then got a little more nervous when Duncan rattled in a free throw he was intentionally trying to miss, but ultimately extended the road team's run to three straight wins. Spurs squeak by again, 105-102. Dallas, unopposed leader of the Midwest Division since Jan. 26, slips into a first-place tie with San Antonio, which posts the lone 2-0 record in the Round Robin.

  • What didn't happen: Before the All-Star break, the Spurs were a combined 2-7 against the Kings, Lakers, Mavericks and Wolves -- and largely because Duncan wasn't getting much help in the big games. Not this time. David Robinson continued his recent revival with 22 points and 12 rebounds. Parker, who like Robinson was mostly a second-half spectator in the first two meetings with Dallas, is playing late and playing well now, pushing the ball up the floor at Nash speed. And Bowen, the alleged can't-shoot swingman, sank the clutch three-pointer when the Spurs needed it, to push San Antonio's record to a healthy 36-9 when Bowen isn't injured. Without him, the Spurs are 11-12. As for the Mavericks, lots didn't happen as scripted & mainly Van Exel shooting 1-for-12.

  • What we learned: That maybe Popovich knows a little something about the business, too. As far back as December, when the Spurs were starting 20-5 with only six holdovers from last year's team, he urged everyone to withhold any definitive judgments until March, insisting that the season's last 25 games would be even better than the first 25. Told-you-sos are in order now, even though that's not Pop's style. March has arrived and the Spurs enter a killer trip -- at Clippers, Blazers, Sonics, Lakers -- without a single loss in 12 tries this month. At least it's not just media rubes kicking themselves for not listening. So is Duncan. "Over the years, it seems to happen like that," Duncan said of the Spurs gaining momentum after the All-Star break. "I guess I should have believed it. And we still have the potential to be a better team." Duncan explained that he didn't want to hear Pop's wait-'til-March spiel because "I'm a player -- I want to win now." The only part we couldn't fully agree with is when Duncan said the back-to-back wins over L.A. and Dallas would mean that "a lot of questions stop being asked." The Spurs, like all the challengers to the Lakers' throne, are going to be queried repeatedly until they can pile up playoff wins. Just the way it is, fellas.

    Friday, March 22

  • What happened: The West's best (except the Lakers, who were beating Detroit) took a night off to breathe and bequeathed the spotlight to the Leastern Conference. The results, not surprisingly, were disastrous, and probably nothing we should be joking about. Amid a slew of matchups with playoff implications, injuries took over. It was the Raptors, their season essentially over, starting the trend by shelving Vince Carter for some much-needed knee surgery. Philadelphia's Allen Iverson (broken knuckle) and Orlando's Tracy McGrady (severe back spasms) went down next to give credence to that calamities-happen-in-threes theory.

  • What didn't happen: Aside from New Jersey, no one in the Least moved closer to the magical 50-win plateau. After 70 and 69 games, respectively, only the Nets (45) and Pistons (41) have cracked 40 wins. Gotta go back to 1974-75, for Golden State's Cinderella championship, for the last full season where a conference didn't have a single 50-game winner. The Warriors were 48-34 that season. Of course, because of all the firepower in the West, the NBA could see its second straight season without a single 60-game winner. The Spurs' 58-24 record was tops in 2000-01, something that hadn't happened in a full season since 1978-79, and none of the West's best this season are still on a 60-win pace.

  • What we learned: That you shouldn't let the Least have the spotlight. Too dangerous.

    Sunday, March 24

  • What happened: After all his suffering since the All-Star break -- all the "What's wrong?" whispers -- Oscar Night was Kobe's. He scored eight of L.A.'s last 10 points, four of those after Shaq had been disqualified with six fouls, on the NBA's rowdiest stage. Sacramento, as a result, came away from another measuring-stick showdown against hated L.A. with the short end yet again. It has to mean something that the Kings are still waiting to play the Lakers at full strength this season, with Chris Webber missing the first two encounters and Peja Stojakovic sitting out Sunday's. Of course, judging from the sight of Webber on his knees and elbows and pounding the Arco Arena floor when Sunday's game was over, it's safe to say the locals still have their doubts. Lakers escape, 97-96. Doug Christie, asked where the Kings are as a result, says: "Right now? I don't know."

  • What didn't happen: There's a reason Webber was punching the floor in frustration. After a 14-point opening quarter, Webber missed 14 of his final 18 shots. Webber's final miss, on the game's last possession and opposite the long-limbed Horry, squandered another opportunity to validate his franchise-player contract. Which means he, too, still has some whispers to hush, just like Bryant.

  • What we learned: That there is still lots to be decided over the final 24 days of the regular season. The Kings and Lakers are separated by just a half-game in the Pacific Division. The Spurs and Mavericks are tied atop the Midwest and both fearful of a drop to second, which likely leads to a first-round matchup with Portland. Perhaps even more critical than the eventual playoff seedings, there are also serious injuries to monitor in two California cities, be it Shaq's toe or Peja's hamstring. Figure, then, on the Wild Side's top four shifting until the Kings and Lakers meet in the regular-season finale at Staples on April 17.

    Most of all, after all this mayhem, we re-learned what we thought going in -- that you'd take a week like this whenever you can get it.

    Marc Stein, who covers the NBA for The Dallas Morning News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

    Marc Stein | email

    Senior Writer, ESPN.com
    • Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
    • Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
    • Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics
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