- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 16, 2002

LOS ANGELES (AP) As preposterous as it sounds, the two-time defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers consider themselves underdogs to the Sacramento Kings in the Western Conference finals.
At least that's what several of them are saying.
Don't believe it, because they don't. It's just talk.
And considering the Lakers have won a playoff-record 11 straight road games, 23 of their last 25 postseason games and 19 of the last 20 they've played at Staples Center over the past three months, they're probably quietly offended anyone would consider them underdogs.
"I think in some people's eyes we are," Derek Fisher said with a laugh yesterday at the Lakers' practice facility in El Segundo. "I'd probably say it's 50-50 right now. As the games go along, people will probably sway and jump on whatever bandwagon looks best."
Following his third straight clutch fourth-quarter performance against San Antonio on Tuesday night that helped eliminate the Spurs from the best-of-seven series in five games, Kobe Bryant placed the Lakers in an underdog role against the Kings.
But asked if he really felt that way, Bryant paused and replied: "I never feel like an underdog. It's irrelevant. All that matters is how we feel as a unit, how we feel as a team and our togetherness."
Lakers coach Phil Jackson called the Lakers underdogs because the Kings have the homecourt advantage in the series that begins Saturday at Arco Arena in Sacramento.
And Robert Horry said much the same thing.
Both failed to point out the Lakers are 16-5 against Sacramento since Jackson became their coach; eliminated the Kings from the playoffs in each of the last two years, including a four-game sweep last year, and have won five of their last six games at Arco.
Rick Fox wouldn't comment when asked if the Lakers should be underdogs, but pulled no punches when asked his opinion on the series.
"I truly believe we're the better team," he said. "We're lacking homecourt advantage, and I think that's going to be a challenge for us."
In the aftermath of Tuesday night's 93-87 victory over San Antonio, Fox forecast a Lakers' victory in the conference finals.
"I have babble of the mouth, I speak what I feel," he said yesterday. "I'm only one person, it takes 12 of us to do this along with the coaching staff. I believe it. It's up to the Kings to prove us wrong, to prove me wrong."
Samaki Walker said the Kings deserve the attention they're receiving because of their NBA-best 61-21 regular-season record, but added: "They're cherishing everything, which is good. Saturday they have to play the two-time defending champions."
After Tuesday night's game, a sheet of paper was taped to Shaquille O'Neal's locker with a photograph of Vlade Divac and a midseason quote from the Kings' center: "If [the Lakers] don't have homecourt advantage this year, they're not going to win it."
O'Neal's reaction: "I hear and see everything. I'm the police."
When asked yesterday who put the article up, Walker replied: "I can assure you it didn't walk up there. That's the character of the team, one of the coaches put it up there for inspiration without a doubt it was Phil Jackson. That's one of his ways of motivating superstars. It seems to work. Shaq doesn't like that sort of thing.
"There's got to be doubts in their heads whether they can beat this team. It's going to be very intense, Shaq's looking forward to it. Everybody's getting their flop T-shirts ready because we know Vlade's going to be doing a lot of that."
In Sacramento, Divac said he watched O'Neal's live television interview Tuesday night, and had to laugh when O'Neal accused him of excessive flopping.
To illustrate his point, Divac shoved a reporter in the chest with one hand, knocking him back one step.
"Why you flopping, man?" Divac asked, grinning.
When asked why O'Neal is so difficult to guard, Divac replied: "He sets up low, and it's hard to move him. Hopefully, they're not going to let him stay more than five seconds. The guy's just powerful and talented."
About the picture in O'Neal's locker, Divac said: "If he wants to use that for motivation, I can send him another couple of pictures."
The Lakers didn't practice yesterday. Fisher, Fox and Walker came in for treatment and spoke with reporters. O'Neal was supposed to have the seven stitches in his right index finger removed after Tuesday night's game, but took them out at home beforehand. Trainer Gary Vitti put a liquid synthetic suture on the finger and bandaged it. Fox said he hopes Sacramento's Peja Stojakovic, who has a sprained ankle, plays in the series. "Chasing him is no fun, it's a job," Fox said. "I don't know how much mobility he has. I know he's not as mobile as he usually is. I won't have to chase him as much, I'll be in his face."

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