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Thursday, April 17
The ones who hold upper hand on Lakers
By Scott Howard-Cooper
Special to ESPN.com
All speculation at this time, one fact: The Los Angeles Lakers are the reigning NBA champions. Until further notice. Until someone climbs over Shaquille O'Neal, corrals Kobe Bryant and knocks the supreme supporting cast from the foundation on the top of that mountain they have ruled for three straight seasons. Until someone earns it away from them. Another reality being that that's entirely possible. Because while the Lakers still have potential for something tremendous -- you should not be surprised if they land the quad -- you also should not be surprised if they fall to San Antonio in the second round, the Spurs having swept the regular-season series. Everyone is targeting the Lakers. They're still the story. L.A. losing in any round would be bigger news than, say, if San Antonio loses -- and the Spurs finished with the best record in the league. The Lakers have the confidence of having been there, going through every degree of difficulty. It's 2003. No one else has won since 1999. Talk about your mental advantages. But now let's talk about the ones that others have against the Lakers:
No one has more reason to feel that mental edge, and it's only partially due to a 4-0 record in the regular season. More important is how the Spurs take on every opponent. Grounded. Smart shots. Composed. Good defense. Tough. Elite defenders on the perimeter (Bruce Bowen) and the interior (Tim Duncan). And the one key player that is untested in a championship setting -- West title round or Finals -- is soaring with confidence. Or at least Tony Parker, the second-year point guard, should be with the way he has played the second half of the season. Those aspects have a far greater impact than 4-0. The Lakers wouldn't have much trouble dismissing the latter as irrelevant, and with decent reason. One of the games was opening night. The second was Nov. 20. Another was Feb. 14. Los Angeles isn't the same team as then. But San Antonio isn't the same team, either. The Lakers' transition back to playoff-ready has been obvious and well-documented, but the Spurs have been just as much a work in progress. Parker is better. Malik Rose has recovered from a poor start to re-establish himself as a critical bench presence. They will have home-court advantage and also have proved to be indestructable on the road. Besides, all four wins were within single digits. Dominating doesn't look so dominating. The good news for the Spurs is, they don't need the head-to-head matchup from the previous months as the reason to be confident. Portland Trail Blazers
Mental advantage? Trail Blazers? Next!
The opponent of the moment, so it's the only one that really matters right now. Everything good about the Timberwolves stems from their resiliency and ability to lean into the wind. Kevin Garnett is a wonderful talent in Minnesota because he's been committed to trying to make it work in the Twin Cities, instead of pushing for a trade when he took the blame as the first-round losses mounted or when management got stripped of draft choices and cost him a better supporting cast. This season, Minnesota has overcome major injuries -- and in years past the sanctions from the Joe Smith mess and, most chilling of all, the death of Malik Sealy -- to earn home-court advantage in the first round. Of course, there is the matter of six consecutive postseason appearances bringing six consecutive first-round losses, and a reputation. "The first three or four, you look at who you played against and the reasons why," guard Anthony Peeler said. "But now, it's at the point where it's no excuse. You've got to make sure you get out (of the first round)." Said Smith: "It becomes frustrating. I don't think it becomes mental to us, but it becomes frustrating to know that we do everything all season long to secure playoff position, we're capable of beating everybody in the league and we show that every year, except that first round of the playoffs. Something always goes wrong. "I think it's just being talked about a lot more than what it has been before. But we all put enough pressure on ourselves to go out and win a series to not have to worry about what everybody else is thinking. It's not good what's been happening the last six years. But I think we've all learned from it." Or else. Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks are the only team that could have the best record in the league for 98 percent of the regular season and lose it at the end and still feel good. They're the only team whose best players can either be coming back from injury, or look like they're burnt from overwork, and still feel energized. They missed the Lakers in the first round, and that is cause for celebration. No one has a bigger mental disadvantage with the Lakers than the Mavericks. Who wouldn't have picked L.A. if that had been the matchup, as was once possible? Apart from anyone within the Dallas organization, of course. The biggest edge the Mavericks could have on the Lakers would be to get the defending champions in a later round and try to run them. But then came the recent admission that Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash were dragging, and Michael Finley just came back from a strained hamstring. So exactly who wouldn't want an up-tempo game?
Apparently there's some rumor going around they have a rivalry with the Lakers. The mental aspects are everywhere. Most telling of all, you wouldn't have to search hard to find fans in Northern California who would say a championship for the Kings wouldn't be complete unless they beat the Lakers in the process. (Always nice to set yourself up to be disappointed if a title comes). There is a sense of wanting that closure, and not strictly among the citizenry. "You can't choose who you play," center-power forward Scot Pollard said, "but I would like to play them and beat them." To officially make it Sacramento time. "Payback time," Pollard said. The Kings' mental advantage comes, strangely, from not beating them last season. Conspiracy talk aside -- for the moment, and let's hope for something more along the lines of eternity -- they are convinced they beat L.A. in the Western Conference finals. At least, in a concession, they proved they are capable of knocking off a team with Shaq and Kobe. In the event another matchup comes, they will be supremely motivated, driven by a force none of the other challengers can match. Whatever it takes for any of the teams to get the job done of dethroning the Lakers. If it can get done.
Scott Howard-Cooper, who covers the NBA for the Sacramento Bee, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.