In a wacky year, Lakers still a team to contend with

They're barely over .500, but nobody in Atlanta during All-Star weekend thinks the Lakers are out of the title mix. ESPN.com's Marc Stein asked a number of the game's biggest names for their assessment.

Updated: April 15, 2003, 4:32 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- The Angels won the World Series. The Angels, people.

The Buccaneers won the Super Bowl. We repeat: Buccaneers.

Who's beaten the Lakers?
Twice:
New Jersey
Houston (2 meetings left)
Golden State (1 left)
Minnesota (2 left)
San Antonio (2 left)

Once:
Atlanta (1 left)
Boston (1 left)
Cleveland
Dallas (2 left)
Miami
New Orleans
Orlando
Philadelphia (1 left)
Phoenix (1 left)
Portland (2 left)
Sacramento (2 left)
Washington (1 left)
Utah (1 left)

Maybe the Lakers should be worried.

Supposing that earth-shaking calamities really happen in threes, and that the aforementioned championship stunners qualify, this just might be the Nets' year. Sacramento is a better bet, certainly, but the omens are out there. These days, it's better to be a glamour-less franchise.

Isn't it?

You had to think so for much of the season, when the Lakers started 3-9 and still found themselves mired at 11-19 after the return of Shaquille O'Neal. You were forced to at least acknowledge the possibility that the Lakers might not even make the playoffs right up until L.A.'s first game after the Super Bowl, when it went to Phoenix -- home of the 19-3 Suns -- and cruised.

Wins at Sacramento (18-3 at home) and Indiana (22-2) followed, and suddenly no one wants to downgrade the resurgence, even though the Kings and Pacers both played shorthanded. By the time you got to Atlanta for All-Star Weekend, the ninth-placed team in the West had been re-anointed title favorites by a resounding majority of their peers.

Minnesota's Kevin Garnett: "Let me tell you something. You can never, ever, ever downplay a juggernaut like the Lakers." Asked about Minnesota's two regular-season wins over the Lakers already, one at home and one on the road, KG added: "Doesn't matter. Doesn't matter. Doesn't matter. ... They've been down in worse situations."

San Antonio's Tim Duncan: "They're the guys. They still have the rings. It's about (beating) them."

Sacramento coach Rick Adelman: "We're not the best team right now. There's no way we can say that. When we're healthy, I don't know. We'll see. I've said all along that if the Lakers are healthy in the playoffs, they're the team you've got to beat. I don't care if they're the eighth seed. I wouldn't want to be the (top) seed playing them in the first round.

"Three weeks ago, I wasn't sure if they were going to get it together. I was really shocked when (they struggled after) Shaq came back. I knew it would take him a little bit of time, but it looked like they were going to get it going and then they would take a couple steps back. Shaq looks much healthier now. Kobe looked really tired to me about three weeks ago, but he looks like he's got his energy back. When those two guys have energy, they're tough to handle. I always expect them to be there."

What else is left?
  • Two games against Detroit (home on Feb. 27, at Pistons on March 12)

  • 10 back-to-back sets (including at Sacramento/host Boston on March 20-21)

  • 10 of 12 games on the road from March 11-30 (including visits to Detroit, Sacramento, San Antonio and Houston)
  • New York's Kurt Thomas: "Are you crazy? Don't you see the Big Fella over there. When he's there, they're still the champs and still the favorites."

    New Orleans' Jamal Mashburn: "We've played Sacramento and Dallas & but I'm picking the Lakers."

    Houston's Steve Francis: "You knew that eventually they would put something together. They have experience at it."

    Francis knows as well as anyone that the Lakers have also sliced the Rockets' cushion at No. 8 in the West to a mere 1 games coming out of the break. Minnesota, at No. 5, has a buffer of just four games. As KG indicated, the thrice-defending champs have indeed seen worse.

    There was the 15-point deficit to erase in the fourth quarter of Game 7 against Portland in the 2000 conference finals. There was a 3-2 hole to climb out in the Sacramento series just last June. With everything else they have to draw from, the Lakers can face their plight with uncommon calm.

    It's because the Lakers also have:

  • The rare pleasure of employing a guy (Bryant) who is more dominating, at the minute, than the game's consensus dominant force. "He's carrying me sometimes," Shaq said the other day.

    " We had this goal all year, but we stressed it two weeks ago. It shows that if we set a goal, there's still something left in the tank to achieve it. "
     Rick Fox

  • The comforting knowledge that they still hold a mental edge over almost every West rival. Sacramento has arguably worked through the barrier, after tasting the most painful manner of defeat possible last spring, but the hex lives over the Mavericks, Blazers and Spurs. The latest evidence is this All-Star Weekend reaction from San Antonio's Tony Parker: "Every day it's Lakers, Lakers, Lakers. Why are you asking me about them now?"

  • The belief that O'Neal will continue to regain his mobility to be a force defensively. It's more of a hope than a belief -- no one really knows if Shaq can be more lively and lithe than he is now -- but it has to happen if the Lakers want to be a four-round playoff force. L.A. begins the post-break portion of the schedule ranked 22nd in the points-per-game allowed (97.0) and 17th in defensive field-goal percentage (.438). Defense, of course, is the rarely mentioned foundation of the three title teams.

    The Lakers will have to have all of it to get through the rest of a prickly schedule and to offset the fuel drain that figures to kick in during the playoffs, given all the effort needed to overcome the 11-19 start. Bryant has complained of knee and groin soreness at various points in the season, just as O'Neal's faces an ongoing tussle with tendinitis, to make freshness a huge factor.

    "The thing with them is their margin of error isn't as big as it used to be," Adelman said. "They always used to get off to quick starts. Now they've got to hope everybody stays healthy."

    Yet another concern is momentum. The Lakers finally had some before the All-Star break, sweeping their last five games after making that a team goal. Coach Phil Jackson argues that "we pushed to this break" and needed it, but &

    "We had this goal all year, but we stressed it two weeks ago," L.A.'s Rick Fox joked of finally climbing above .500. "It shows that if we set a goal, there's still something left in the tank to achieve it."

    Pressed further, however, Fox ignored all the All-Star Weekend praise and called today's Lakers "good enough to make the playoffs, not good enough to win a championship."

    If the Angels and Bucs are the standard, the Lakers might not be enough of an underdog, either.

    Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, send Stein a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

    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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