Thursday, May 15, 2003

Lakers' backs to the wall again



By John Nadel
The Associated Press

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. - The Los Angeles Lakers faced the same predicament last year: They need two straight wins for a chance to extend their NBA championship run.

Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and the rest of the three-time defending champions believe they're up to the task.

"Sacramento, San Antonio, whoever the opponent is, it doesn't really matter," Lakers guard Derek Fisher said Wednesday. "It's about us, if we do what we're capable of doing."

The Spurs took a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal Tuesday night with a 96-94 victory at SBC Center. They won despite blowing all but two points of the 25-point lead they held late in the third quarter.

Had it not been for a 3-pointer by Robert Horry rattling in-and-out with just over three seconds left, the Lakers would be up 3-2.

Game 6 is Thursday night at Staples Center. If Los Angeles wins, Game 7 will be Saturday at SBC Center, where the Lakers are winless in five games since the facility opened last fall.

"Tomorrow, that's all there is," Fisher said. "We're just going to get ourselves charged up to win tomorrow night. After that, it comes down to one game. We feel like we have just as good a chance as they do."

The Lakers trailed the Sacramento Kings 3-2 in the conference finals last spring after losing Game 5 92-91. But they advanced to the NBA Finals by winning 106-102 at Staples Center and 112-106 in overtime at Arco Arena.

Then they swept the New Jersey Nets for their third straight championship.

The Lakers are 4-0 when facing elimination since Phil Jackson became their coach in 1999. They have won 13 straight playoff series under Jackson, whose nine championships as a head coach tie him with former Boston coach Red Auerbach for the most in NBA history.

The Lakers didn't practice Wednesday, instead nursing their physical and emotional injuries from Game 5, although Fisher made it sound as if they were in good shape mentally.

Shortly after scoring 13 of his 36 points in the fourth quarter to spark the Game 5 comeback, Bryant said he had already put the loss behind him.

Jackson, obviously shaken by the death of former New York Knicks teammate Dave DeBusschere from a heart attack, spoke briefly with reporters Wednesday but didn't take questions.

"Today was a day that was very sad to me from a personal standpoint, losing a friend and a teammate that I played with for eight years, who I admired very much as a basketball player and a person in Dave DeBusschere," Jackson, 57, said.

Jackson, who had an angioplasty last Saturday to unblock an artery to his heart, didn't like his team's performance in Game 5.

"We did not play well, we were not happy with our effort, we were not active, San Antonio beat us to the punch," he said. "We were able to put doubt in their mind, have an opportunity to win.

"We need to play with that level of intensity in the first 36 minutes to have an opportunity to win Game 6 and force a Game 7," Jackson added before returning to watch videotape with his assistants.

Fisher had an electric stimulator on his sprained left ankle while speaking to the media, and also displayed a swollen and discolored right pinky, dislocated in Tuesday night's game.

Fortunately, he's left-handed.

His ankle was "not too bad. By 5 o'clock tomorrow, it will be just fine," he said.

While healthy through last year's playoffs except for O'Neal's sore right big toe, which didn't stop him from big performances in Games 6 and 7 against Sacramento as well as the NBA Finals, the Lakers are banged up.

Rick Fox has already been lost with a torn tendon in his left foot, Devean George is playing on a sprained ankle that clearly limited him in Game 5, and O'Neal has a sore left knee.

Jackson said following Tuesday night's game that O'Neal didn't play with his usual energy, and O'Neal acknowledged he could do a lot better.

"I've been with Shaq since Day 1 - we came in together (in 1996)," Fisher said. "I fully expect him to dominate tomorrow night's game.

"We don't win without him. I expect everything to flow through him."

Rather than be upset about blowing most of their big lead Tuesday night, the Spurs were just happy to have won.

"We have a 3-2 lead, that's all that matters," said Tim Duncan, who had 27 points, 14 rebounds and five assists.

"We're thrilled with the victory," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "You can see they've been together for years. They've been winning for years. We're trying to attain what they have."

San Antonio swept the Lakers in the 1999 conference semifinals en route to its only NBA championship. Los Angeles eliminated the Spurs in each of the last two years, sweeping them in the conference finals two years ago and beating them 4-1 in the conference semifinals last year.




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