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Lakers could face final game of their season

Posted: Friday, May 31, 2002

LOS ANGELES -- A day after being animated and outgoing, Kobe Bryant was a man of few words Thursday.

''Maybe I got up on the wrong side of the bed today,'' he said without cracking a smile.

The Los Angeles Lakers' star and his teammates were in a pretty serious mood on the eve of perhaps their final game of the season.

Of course, they plan on playing until mid-June, as they have the past two years in winning championships.

''I'm enjoying myself,'' Bryant said, although it appeared otherwise as he dealt with the throng of media surrounding him at the Lakers' training headquarters in nearby El Segundo. ''I'd much rather be up 3-2.''

It's the Sacramento Kings who have that advantage entering Game 6 of the Western Conference finals Friday night at Staples Center.

''Everybody's fine on the team,'' Bryant said. ''I'm very pleased with that. Everybody's spirits are high.''

The Lakers' task sounds simple enough -- beat the Kings on Friday night, beat them again Sunday at Arco Arena and then face Boston or New Jersey in the NBA Finals.

The reality is, accomplishing the feat will be anything but simple against the gritty Kings, who might already have won the best-of-seven series had it not been for a last-second 3-pointer by Robert Horry in Game 4.

''We're hungry, we're one win away from the Finals,'' Game 5 hero Mike Bibby said after practice in Sacramento, before the Kings flew south. ''We have a lot of confidence in ourselves. I think we actually played them better on the road than we have at home. We're more relaxed down there.''

The Kings won a convincing 103-90 decision at Staples Center before losing 100-99 on Horry's winning shot after leading by as many as 24 points in Game 4.

While the Kings have a 5-1 road playoff record and are 17-3 in their last 20 road games, the Lakers have won 20 of their last 22 at Staples Center.

''We like where we are,'' Shaquille O'Neal said. ''This is the position we want to be in. We're not feeling any pressure, we have to win two games, move on, start all over. We're capable of putting two great games together.

''We just have to go out and do what we're capable of doing. If we do that, nine out of 10 times we'll be fine.''

The Lakers will probably need O'Neal to stay out of foul trouble and do a better job containing Bibby if they're going to advance.

''We just have to pressure him, make him look for other guys,'' O'Neal said of Bibby, whose 22-foot jumper with 8.2 seconds left gave the Kings a 92-91 victory in Game 5.

O'Neal had 28 points in 32 minutes before fouling out with 3:22 remaining.

''I'm going to stay aggressive,'' he said. ''I'll never change my game. Never, ever, ever.''

Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who hasn't lost in 22 straight playoff series -- 12 with the Chicago Bulls from 1996-98 and 10 since becoming coach of the Lakers -- said he believes the Kings' game plan revolves around getting O'Neal in foul trouble.

Jackson also said he doesn't plan to change much.

''When you lose a game like we lost or they lost Sunday, you don't throw anything out,'' he said. ''You realize things turn on a trifle.''

That being said, it's likely Bryant will spend more time defending the smaller Bibby than he did in Game 5, when the task was mostly handled by Derek Fisher.

Bryant guarded Bibby most of the second half of Game 4, holding him to three points after the speedy guard scored 18 in the first half.

Jackson said he believes too much emphasis has been placed on who's guarding Bibby, and Fisher made no apologies for the job he's done.

''Overall, I felt good about the way I defended him,'' Fisher said. ''I think the key to guarding Mike Bibby and any good basketball player is to make it hard for them to get into their comfort areas. He has the ball in his hands so much, he's going to score.

''More has been made of it because of my lack of scoring. That's just a part of it.''

Fisher, who averaged 13.4 points and shot 48.4 percent in the postseason last year, is averaging 9.5 points and shooting 31.1 percent this year, including 2-of-10 in Game 5.

''To start games, I've felt great,'' he said. ''As the game progresses, my rhythm seems to break up. As bad as I've shot, as bad as anybody's shot, we lost (Game 5) by one point. It came down to one stop.''

Kings coach Rick Adelman said Peja Stojakovic, who played 18 minutes Tuesday night after being sidelined for nearly three weeks with a sprained ankle, was making progress every day.

''He looked good in our scrimmage, he was running freer and moving better,'' Adelman said. ''Just having him out on the floor will cause some problems. He really spreads the defense out.''

Adelman said the Kings would prefer not to have to play a Game 7 for obvious reasons.

''We know the Lakers are capable of winning at Arco,'' he said. ''We love Arco and our fans, but we would rather see them later on.''



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