Tuesday, May 18, 2004

There are no delusions about the Los Angeles Lakers.

No one — the casual fan, the players, the coach, the team owner or the league commissioner — is fooled by the team’s stellar play as it won four straight games to dispatch the defending champion San Antonio Spurs 4-2 in the Western Conference semifinals.

Yes, the Lakers cast aside the distractions of their multi-layered drama to advance in the NBA Playoffs. But make no mistake about it, these Lakers are a one-year experiment. Don’t expect them to be back together next season even if they win the franchise’s 15th NBA title.

“I don’t think anyone expects to see us come back with the same team next year,” Lakers reserve guard Derek Fisher said last week. “We’ve got this to play for right now. After that, who knows?”

Who indeed?

Even though coach Phil Jackson is dating Jeanie Buss, the team’s vice president of business operations and the daughter of Lakers owner Jerry Buss, he isn’t happy negotiations for a contract extension were suspended.

Normally, this alone might be enough to cause friction. But for the Lakers, it’s just the beginning of their concerns.

Kobe Bryant, perhaps the best all-around player in the league, said he would like to test the free agent market this summer, though Jerry Buss claims he wants Bryant back in a Lakers uniform next season.

Of course, Bryant’s future is in doubt because he could be in prison this time next year. The 25-year-old superstar is in the midst of pretrial hearings in Eagle, Colo., where he is charged with sexual assault. He has shuttled between the basketball court and a courthouse all season.

And then there is the Shaquille O’Neal-Bryant feud. Each has the utmost respect for the other’s talent, and they enjoy playing together, but reportedly their egos have trouble co-existing in the locker room.

And don’t forget Karl Malone and Gary Payton, aging future Hall of Famers who took huge pay cuts to join the Lakers for a chance at an elusive NBA title.

Malone, 40, holds the record for playoff games played without a championship. In fact, last season he saw his eldest daughter, Cheryl Ford of the WNBA’s Detroit Shock, beat him to a championship.

And Payton, who toiled for years in Seattle before signing with the Lakers, has been an uneasy fit in Jackson’s triangle offense. He often criticized the system and as a result experienced some late-game benchings at the end of the regular season.

O’Neal says the various subplots have taken on lives of their own and yet maintains Jackson’s steady hand is the reason the Lakers are meeting expectations.

“This is Hollywood,” O’Neal, a three-time finals MVP, told ESPN. “We’re a close-knit group. People try to take what we say and turn our words around and make it look like we’re at war.

“We’re not. It’s not like that, and it’s because of Phil. He’s the general, and everyone is getting in line behind him.”

That was apparent against the Spurs, the team that ended the Lakers’ three-year reign as champions with a six-game series win in last year’s conference semifinals.

On the road in Game 5, the Lakers won a classic when Fisher, not even an option on the play, sank a game-winning jumper at the buzzer that gave the Lakers an incomprehensible 74-73 victory.

That basket appeared to be the spark the Lakers needed to restore their confidence. In Game 6 on Saturday, the Lakers, playing the Spurs’ preferred grind-it-out style, eliminated San Antonio 88-76.

Known for their offensive stars, the Lakers are positioned for another title run because of their defense. The Spurs made almost 50 percent of their field goals in Games 1 and 2 but were held to just 35.6 percent shooting in the final four games of the series.

“We made an effort to just play defense and forget scoring,” Malone said. “We’ve got enough guys who can do that.”

And following their comeback against the Spurs, the Lakers appear refocused on the title run many considered a foregone conclusion when the season began.

“We can’t worry about next year when we have what’s staring us in the face right now,” said Malone, who took an $18million pay cut to sign with the Lakers as a free agent. “I came here to win, and we have the chance to do just that.”

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