Thursday, April 17
Lakers have played head games with West's best
By Marc Stein
The Minnesota Timberwolves have never faced the former Minneapolis Lakers in the playoffs. That is why the Wolves do not appear on the list that every West team dreads.
It will now take an upset of the thrice-defending champions -- as the Wolves will indeed be the underdogs, even with home-court advantage -- to keep them out of this unhappy fraternity. Everyone else in the West's group of recognized contenders has an episode or three of recent anguish inflicted by the Lakers, which accounts for L.A.'s celebrated mental edge against anyone it meets in the NBA Tournament.
Sacramento's Chris Webber disputes the whole concept of mental blocks -- "It's really never happened to me ... I don't understand how that could happen," Webb says -- and the Wolves only have to contact Anaheim's Ducks for a blueprint on how to combat a champion's mystique. History, however, stacks up against the Kings and Wolves and the rest of the West's top six.
|It took all summer for Doug Christie and the Kings to get over their West finals loss to L.A.|
The Lakers have eliminated the Kings from the playoffs for three straight springs. Twice those series went the distance, in 2000's first round and last season's conference finals. The middle matchup was a 4-0 sweep for L.A., giving the Lakers a veritable triple crown of conquests over the team that now stands as their chief rivals. As Derek Fisher recently observed: "We've had success against them in the playoffs in the first round, in the second round and in the Western Conference finals." Nothing, naturally, hurt more than the most recent chapter, in which Sacramento failed to close the champs out after seizing a 3-2 series lead. Much as the Kings and their loyal subjects can point to questionable refereeing as a factor in their Game 6 loss at Staples Center, Sacramento has to live with flat-out losing Game 7 at home in overtime ... and in a costly hailstorm of 14 missed free throws and 18 missed 3-pointers.
San Antonio Spurs
|Kobe's clutch putback in Game 4 stunned the Spurs last year.|
The Spurs are somewhat responsible for kickstarting the Lakers' three-ring haul. They swept L.A. in 1999's second round -- humiliated Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant is more like it -- and scored the clinching victory in the last official game ever played at the famed Forum. The humiliation led to the hiring of Phil Jackson as coach, which soon begat just enough bonding between Shaq and Kobe to nudge the Lakers rolling into juggernaut status. In the past two postseasons, the new Lakers have done the humiliating, sweeping San Antonio in the 2001 conference finals and scoring a 4-1 victory in last spring's second round. The latter exit was arguably even more torturous than the sweep, because the Spurs won Game 2 at Staples Center before their offense crumbled. They scored less than 20 points in four of five fourth quarters, even with MVP Tim Duncan, and blew three of four halftime leads.
|Steve Nash and the Mavericks couldn't believe what they were seeing during the Lakers' comeback on Dec. 6.|
The Mavericks haven't seen L.A. in the postseason since 1988, when Magic Johnson's Lakers crushed Dallas' dreams of a first-ever trip to the Finals with a Game 7 home win for the West title. One could certainly argue, mind you, that everything that has happened since between the teams has been considerably more painful for the Mavs. Dallas is an astounding 0-25 in L.A. against the Lakers -- Forum and Staples Center -- since 1990. The Mavericks have lost 45 of the past 50 meetings anywhere. Forty-five! They're also 5-30 lifetime against O'Neal, including Shaq's time with Orlando. In 1997, Dallas established an NBA record for offensive futility with a two-point third quarter at L.A. Yet the reason they're dancing in Big D today, having narrowly avoided a first-round matchup with their tormentors, is the lingering memory of what happened Dec. 6. That's when the Mavs blitzed to a 30-point lead, still led by 27 entering the fourth quarter at Staples ... and managed to lose by a bucket.
Portland Trail Blazers
|Shaq's fourth-quarter strut completed Portland's nightmare in the 2000 West finals.|
There's likewise a reason why the Blazers are just as giddy as Dallas about their first-round matchup. Portland, more than anything, just wanted to avoid the Lakers in Round 1, after L.A. dismissed them in the first round the past two years. The Blazers are convinced they would have enjoyed playoff success against almost anyone else, and now they have a chance to prove it. That said, Portland has seen more chaos than success since June 4, 2000, when it introduced the concept of late playoff collapses against this group of Lakers. Down 3-1 in 2000's conference finals, Portland roared back to win Games 5 and 6 and seized a 75-60 lead in the fourth quarter of Game 7 on L.A's floor. The Blazers then contrived to miss 13 straight shots and never recovered, making everyone forget how they staved off elimination twice just to have the opportunity. "It's tough to swallow right now," Scottie Pippen said that night, "and I'm sure it will be all summer."
It's still tough for the West's best, actually, as the Wolves will inevitably discover next.
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.