- The Washington Times - Friday, May 31, 2002

LOS ANGELES Great teams and individuals in sport usually have strong opponents pushing them to levels of excellence they might not have achieved otherwise.

Ali had Frazier. Chamberlain had Russell. The Lakers of Abdul-Jabbar and Magic had the Celtics of Bird, McHale and Parish.

Which brings us to the current Lakers of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, who have had no such foe.

Until now.

Ever since they overcame a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit to win Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference finals against Portland and went on to win their first NBA title since 1988, the Lakers have faced little in the way of a true challenge.

They bulldozed everyone in last season's playoffs, losing just once, to Philadelphia in the Finals on their way to their second title in a row.

Before last year's Finals, the Lakers brushed off a San Antonio team that had been expected to challenge them, beating the Spurs by an average of more than 22 points over four games.

With two of the five best players in the world, the Lakers have never been forced to extend themselves. They have fallen into the malaise of turning it on only when they have to.

But this won't be good enough now, not with Sacramento leading the Lakers 3-2 in the Western Conference finals and aiming to send them on vacation tonight at Staples Center.

Despite all the pronouncements that these Lakers are a team for the ages, it is not yet true. Instead, they are the basketball equivalent to Roy Jones Jr., the marvelously talented but never tested light-heavyweight champion.

Jones is so good that he can beat a tomato can which is the best way to describe the skill level of most of his opponents and still see his name firmly etched atop any theoretical ranking of the best pound-for-pound fighters.

I've heard many boxing experts say that Jones a combination of speed and power the likes of which boxing may have never seen before would have been too much for Sugar Ray Leonard or Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Yet such opponents and such fights might have brought out the best in Jones.

And that is where the Lakers must be now to win the next two games and advance to the Finals.

O'Neal and Bryant have made the Lakers so good in past years that other guys on the team have been interchangeable. This explains why one year they can have A.C. Green and Glen Rice in the starting lineup, then Derrick Fisher and Ron Harper the next and still win the championship.

But with Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic, the Kings also have two All-Stars, even though injury has kept Stojakovic out of all but 18 minutes of this series. They also have Mike Bibby developing, right in front of everyone's eyes, into one of the best young point guards in the league and a future All-Star. His acquisition, more than anything else, has made the Kings so much more formidable than the team the Lakers swept last season. And even though coach Rich Adelman prefers a short rotation of seven or eight players, the Kings definitely have more quality players than in the past.

But toward the end of the season, when the Kings were still struggling to win road games, Lakers coach Phil Jackson sized them up this way: "They still haven't proved themselves as a real quality road team yet. We know they're solid on their homecourt. They play in front of their fans very well. They just got over .500 as a road team in this last month, and I think the jury's still out on them."

Not anymore. The Kings won 13 of their last 18 road games and locked up the homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs.

No, the jury's not still out on the Kings. They haven't played in the Finals since 1951, when the franchise was in Rochester, N.Y. But the jury might be getting ready to render a decision on the Lakers a decision that might knock their legacy down a peg or two.

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