- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 7, 2000

LOS ANGELES Many NBA observers were ready to crown the Los Angeles Lakers NBA champs after their come-from-behind victory over the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals.

Not so fast say the Indiana Pacers.

"I like the fact that everyone is conceding the championship to the Lakers already," Indiana guard Reggie Miller said. "I liked the way the Lakers celebrated when the game was over."

The Lakers, led by league MVP Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, easily the most talented twosome on any team in the league, will play host to the Pacers tonight at the lavish Staples Center.

The Lakers, who have not been to the finals since 1991, are a heavy favorite over a Pacer team, that has been to the Eastern Conference finals five times in the last seven seasons before breaking through to the finals this year. It is the first finals in the franchise's history.

Known for his cockiness and his confidence, Miller is the one weapon the Pacers have that could spell potential victory for the one-time ABA team. The Miller-led Pacers took Michael Jordan's Bulls seven games before falling in the East finals in 1998.

Since the playoffs began almost six weeks ago, Miller has upped his scoring average from 18.1 points during the regular season to 23.8. He has replaced the inconsistent Jalen Rose as the Pacers biggest scoring threat and he has paid close attention to the Lakers' weaknesses.

"They were the best team in the league all season," Miller said. "You have to give them that. But they've had their moments."

Indeed they have.

The Lakers won 63 games during the regular season and three times established double-digit winning streaks. And yet under coach Phil Jackson they have yet to demonstrate the killer instinct that was the trademark of the Bulls teams Jackson coached to six world titles.

Before Portland extended the Lakers to seven games, Sacramento took the Lakers to the limit in the first round. And had it not been for the Trail Blazers' 5 for 23 shooting (21.7 percent) in the fourth quarter of Game 7, which allowed the Lakers to make up a 15-point deficit in the final 10 minutes, Los Angeles could be sitting at home trying to explain how they became only the seventh team in NBA history to blow a 3-1 series lead. This, no doubt, gave rise to the Lakers' on-court party following Sunday's victory.

The biggest difference between the Lakers and every other team in the league is O'Neal, their 7-foot-1, 350-pound center. O'Neal has been the best player in the league this season and has embraced the role of team leader. He loves physical play and is particularly dominant against finesse centers, like the Pacers' 7-4 dandelion Rik Smits. Smits struggled against the Knicks' ailing and aching Patrick Ewing, so he figures to be less than a speed bump for O'Neal.

"Shaq and Kobe are the things that separate the two teams, but Shaq is the biggest difference," NBC analyst and Hall-of-Famer Bill Walton said. "Phil is going to establish that mismatch on the first possession and try to beat it like a drum. If Smits shows little resistance it'll be a very quick series."

Bryant creates another problem for the Pacers. The 6-7 Bryant, just 21, earned second-team All-NBA and first-team all-defense, and has developed much faster than expected. Bryant is the most dangerous when he's in the open court which could be a problem for the Pacers which will be forced to defend Bryant with Miller. This, no doubt, will sap Miller of the energy he uses at the offensive end to run around screens and get open for easy jumpers.

Bryant, because of teammate and defensive stopper Ron Harper,will be able to defend either Mark Jackson or Travis Best. Best won't be able to spot up for jumpers with the taller Bryant in his face. Jackson could be rendered obsolete because his post up game, which killed smaller point guards like the Knicks Charlie Ward and Chris Childs, and Philly's Allen Iverson. That tactic won't work against Bryant.

The home court advantage seems to favor the Lakers, even though they lost a pair of games on the Staples Center court against the Blazers. Each team was an identical 36-5 at home during the regular season, and each team won at home when they played in the regular season. But the Finals use the 2-3-2 format. If the Lakers can hold serve on their home court the series could very well be over. No home team has ever swept the middle three middle games. If the Lakers win just one game at Conseco Fieldhouse they could return home holding a 3-2 series advantage, a seemingly insurmountable deficit for the Pacers.

But it won't even get this far. The Lakers have already received their wake-up call.

Lakers in five.

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