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Lakers one win away from first title since 1988

Posted: Friday, June 16, 2000

INDIANAPOLIS -- Admitting that his team was down in the dumps but refusing to concede anything else, Larry Bird prepared for the biggest challenge and perhaps the final game of his coaching career.

''Personally, to me, I want it to keep going,'' Bird said Thursday with his Indiana Pacers trailing the Los Angeles Lakers 3-1 in the NBA Finals. ''I have nothing to do, so it would be nice to finish it next Wednesday.''

But next Wednesday is a long way off for the Pacers. No team has ever come back from such a deficit in the NBA Finals, and this Lakers team hasn't lost more than two consecutive games all season.

Can Indiana win three in a row, including twice on the Lakers' home court? Can the Pacers summon the inner strength to overcome the heartbreak of losing in overtime in Game 4 in the best game that they've played all series?

''These guys are down in there,'' Bird said, ''and we have to snap out of it.''

However long the series lasts, the final game will be Bird's last one, too. Bird intends to quit coaching at the end of his contract, which expires at the end of this season.

The challenge that confronts Bird and the Pacers is an enormous one, although one factor working in their favor could be the Lakers' inability to close out opponents in the postseason. It took them three games to do it against Sacramento; three games -- and one terrific scare in Game 7 -- to do it against Portland.

The Lakers are well aware of what they are on the cusp of becoming. All the talk about the dawn of a new dynasty doesn't go unnoticed in their locker room, and the battle they are fighting in their own minds is to not get too far ahead of themselves.

''I'm really thinking about it, but I'm trying not to think about it,'' Shaquille O'Neal said. ''We still have to win one game. I don't want to get too amped up.''

Wednesday night's game was a thriller, easily the best of the four games in this series, while also being the first overtime game in the finals since Game 1 of the Utah-Chicago series in 1998 -- a series that ended with Michael Jordan's final shot and the subsequent dismantling of the Chicago Bulls.

With Jordan retired and his dynasty cleared out of the way, the NBA landscape has changed drastically in two years. There is not yet an anointed successor to the place Jordan and the Bulls held in the national consciousness, but these Lakers, led by O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, are awfully close to filling that vacuum.

Bryant's performance in Game 4 was special. Playing on a sore ankle that forced him to miss all of Game 3 and most of Game 2, he took over after O'Neal fouled out in overtime and calmly hit three straight clutch shots to lead the Lakers to their 120-118 victory.

It was a show that bordered on Jordanesque, and it was all the more impressive for the way the 21-year-old Bryant handled himself so self-assuredly.

Jordan had moments like this, but not until he was in his late 20s and 30s. He didn't win his first title, in fact, until he was 28.

Bryant is showing the same qualities while still a pup.

''I probably coached, what, 115 (playoff) games with Michael Jordan, so I saw a lot of games that were above and beyond that level from an individual performer,'' Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. ''But that's not to take anything away from Kobe's great performance in the clutch time and overtime.''

What Jackson seemed to be saying is that it's still too early to be making serious comparisons between Bryant and Jordan.

One won six titles and five MVP awards; the other hasn't won anything yet.

And if it's up to the Pacers, nobody's about to win anything until the middle of next week.

''Our objective is not to have the Los Angeles Lakers celebrating the championship, whether it be here or there,'' Indiana guard Mark Jackson said.

If the Pacers win Game 5, the series will return to Los Angeles for Game 6 on Monday night and Game 7, if necessary, on Wednesday night.

Since both teams played extremely well in Game 4, many of the adjustments should carry over to Game 5. That means Dale Davis and Sam Perkins -- and not Rik Smits -- will get the defensive assignment on O'Neal, which Indiana hopes will allow Smits to stay out of foul trouble so he can try to duplicate his strong offensive performance -- 24 points on 11-for-14 shooting -- of Wednesday night.

The Lakers will he hoping for the best when the erratic O'Neal steps to the foul line. After shooting 38 percent from the line in the first three games, O'Neal made eight of his first nine free throws in Game 4 before missing six of his final eight. He is averaging 38.0 points per game in the series.

Bird plans to retire from coaching when this series is over, and his last challenge -- in fact his only challenge -- will be to get his team to believe that the series remains winnable.

Optimism was in short supply in Indianapolis, so much so that the headline on Page 1 of the Indianapolis Star sports section read: ''All But Over.''

The last time Bird faced a 3-1 deficit in the finals was 1987 -- his last appearance in the finals as a player. His Boston Celtics won Game 5 at home that year before dropping Game 6 in Los Angeles by 13 points, so Bird knows firsthand that it's a nearly impossible task.

''We feel like if we come out and give the effort like we did last night and get a couple rebounds and make a couple more plays on the defensive end, we're going to win the ballgame,'' Bird said. ''Then go to L.A. and do the same thing, try to play the game.

''You can't give up in the finals. That's not what this is all about.''



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