The Los Angeles Lakers' quest for a four-peat has begun, and so has the taunting and fighting with the Kings.
''I'm not worried about the Sacramento Queens,'' Shaquille O'Neal said. ''Write it down. Take pictures. When we get back, there's going to be trouble.''
There certainly was a lot of trouble Friday night in the teams' exhibition finale at the Staples Center, with the Lakers' Rick Fox and Kings' Doug Christie scuffling in the opening minute, then fighting in the tunnel leading to the locker room.
''It's personal now,'' Lakers star Kobe Bryant said. ''Tempers flare. It's what competition is about.''
The NBA season begins Tuesday night with another ring ceremony in Los Angeles, the third straight year the Lakers have added to their jewelry collection.
Now, the swaggering, strutting defending champions will try to do something that no NBA team has done in almost four decades -- win a fourth consecutive title.
The other 28 teams -- and especially the target of the taunts 400 miles up the road -- can only wonder whether there is a way to prevent the mighty Lakers from walking off as winners again next June.
Nobody has found a way to knock them off in the past three seasons, although the Kings came close last spring. After taking a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference finals, the Kings lost a controversial Game 6 before dropping an overtime decision in Game 7.
The Lakers moved on and swatted away New Jersey in a four-game sweep, getting as much pleasure from taking potshots at the Kings as they did in taking out the overmatched Nets.
O'Neal and Phil Jackson have picked up where they left off, directing their jabs directly to the north when speaking about the upcoming season. O'Neal accused Vlade Divac of purposely fouling out in Game 7, and Jackson wondered aloud how the Kings might be affected by Divac's advancing age (34) and Chris Webber's indictment in a case involving a former Michigan booster.
''The jabs have continued back and forth, but that's just going to bring great anticipation for when we play each other,'' Kings coach Rick Adelman said.
Sacramento will get another shot at the Lakers on Christmas Day in a nationally televised matchup. By then, O'Neal should be back from the foot surgery that sidelined him for all of training camp and the preseason.
Besides the Kings, the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks shape up as the strongest candidates to challenge the Lakers in the Western Conference. It may come down to a question of confidence when the playoffs arrive, and one of those team faces the daunting prospect of beating the defending champions not once, but four times.
Another playoff team could be the Houston Rockets, who add 7-foot-5 rookie sensation Yao Ming of China.
They'll all say they're capable of knocking off the Lakers, but will they believe it?
''Talk is real cheap as far as believing goes. You have to beat the team to gain confidence,'' Mavericks coach Don Nelson said.
Confidence when facing the Lakers has been a problem for many of the better teams in the West.
The Spurs are 1-8 against Los Angeles in the past two postseasons; the Mavericks are only 1-7 against them in the past three seasons (4-41 in the past decade).
The Kings appeared capable and cocky enough to finish the job in last year's playoffs, but their 14-for-30 free throw shooting and their offensive meltdown in overtime of Game 7 doomed them.
''I think with them, the most important thing is you have to believe you can get it done,'' said Spurs coach Greg Popovich, who jokingly suggested stealing O'Neal's car battery as perhaps the best plan for beating the Lakers.
''With Kobe we'd probably do something similar, I just haven't thought of it yet,'' Popovich said.
No similar confidence concerns burden teams from the East.
The Nets shocked everybody by winning the No. 1 seed in the conference and a berth in the finals last season. The East remains wide open, with many teams having made major adjustments to their rosters in an effort to become next June's designated underdog.
''Obviously, the West is a stronger conference. I think everybody respects that and knows that,'' said Nets coach Byron Scott, whose team acquired Dikembe Mutombo from Philadelphia with the clear aim of having a weapon to defend O'Neal should the teams meet again in the finals.
First, of course, they have to get there. And plenty of teams -- including Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards -- will try to stop them.
The Wizards added Jerry Stackhouse, Larry Hughes and Charles Oakley in an effort to put together a team that can advance through the postseason. The Boston Celtics added Vin Baker, the Philadelphia 76ers acquired Keith Van Horn and Todd MacCulloch, and the Detroit Pistons dealt for Richard Hamilton.
''The Eastern Conference is going to be who can stay healthy and whose team can blend well together,'' Washington coach Doug Collins said. ''It's wide open.''
Not so in the West, where the team at the top is as clearly defined as the newly enlarged muscles on the arms of Kobe Bryant after a summer of weightlifting.
Bryant and O'Neal give the Lakers a one-two combination that is becoming one of the most successful in NBA history, right up there alongside Bill Russell and Bob Cousy, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
Jackson has had the good fortune to coach two of those dynamic duos, and his nine coaching titles tie him with Red Auerbach for the most in NBA history.
Back in the days when Auerbach was coaching the Boston Celtics, he motivated his team by asking them what they've done for him lately. The ploy was successful year after year, the Celtics winning 11 titles in 13 years from 1957-69 -- nine of them in 10 years under Auerbach's direction.
If the Lakers win another title this season, Jackson will have No. 10
''I don't think I want to address a possible championship until it becomes more of a reality, and there is a whole season to go before we even start thinking about the playoffs,'' Jackson said. ''It's too soon for me to address that.''
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