Saturday, June 17, 2000

Lakers lose some luster




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        INDIANAPOLIS — The parade is still a go. The Los Angeles Lakers can still win the NBA Finals and tool around Tinseltown as A-List athletes. They still get to hang out with Jack Nicholson and Dyan Cannon and the other Hollywood hoops groupies who populate their performances. They can still send the Indiana Pacers back to flyover country as basketball wanna-bes. They may yet spray one another with champagne and cut down some nets and consider themselves champions. But their shot at greatness is gone.

        It vanished Friday night at Conseco Fieldhouse. The Lakers showed up with an opportunity to clinch a championship, to make an imprint, to leave a legacy, and they played as if preoccupied by more pressing matters. You might say they mailed it in, except they probably would have missed the mailbox.

        Indiana 120, Los Angeles 87. Posterity is unimpressed.

        “We heard about the parade that they have planned,” Pacers guard Jalen Rose said. “But that won't be tomorrow.”

From great to sloppy
        The great teams tend to reveal a killer instinct when they lead a best-of-seven series 3 games to 1. The Lakers proved themselves to be pacifists. Shaquille O'Neal continued his dominant post play, scoring 35 points and seizing 11 rebounds, but Kobe Bryant missed 16 of his 20 shots from the field, and never made it to the free-throw line.

        “I think we have to talk to Kobe about that one,” said Lakers forward Robert Horry. “I didn't even know he shot the ball that bad.”

        Bryant was as bad in game five as he had been brilliant in game four, a curious change a lot of Lakers had in common.

        “We were a little too loose, a little too sloppy,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “I don't like to think of a team that has championship quality in it that loses by 33 points. We have to prove something to ourselves when we go back home.”

        The Lakers started the game listlessly, and gradually worked their way toward comatose. The Pacers consistently beat them to the loose balls, and shot so many uncontested jump shots that the competition might have been mistaken for the Over-40 League at the YMCA. The Pacers made 15 of their 20 first-quarter shots, including all six of their 3-point attempts. Jalen Rose was left so open so often that you had to wonder if the Laker defense was operating under a restraining order.

Two chances left
        Perhaps it was predictable. Perhaps the Lakers approached Friday's game with subpar enthusiasm because losing it would still leave them two chances to clinch the series at home. Winning elimination games on the road is always difficult, and eliminating the Pacers in their building in what could have been Larry Bird's last game in coaching required a level of commitment the visitors appeared unwilling to expend.

        Friday's score does not change the probabilities. The Pacers must still win two games in LA to win the series, and even Reggie Miller acknowledged their position is “behind the eight ball.” The Lakers have won 16 of their last 17 games at Staples Center.

        “I still think they feel very good about themselves,” Bird said of the Lakers. “They're up 3-2 and they've got two games at home and Shaq is playing pretty well. They still have the upper hand.”

        Having the upper hand, however, is no assurance of a thumbs-up.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com

NBA Finals coverage from Associated Press



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