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IT WAS MIND OVER WHAT MATTERED.

Byline: KEVIN MODESTI

One last time before calling it a regular season, the Lakers faced a psychological exam Wednesday night. One last chance to see if they're just a little eccentric, or too darned crazy to be champions again.

This game was a basketball ink-blot test. It was whatever you wanted to make of it.

It was ``meaningful,'' and it was ``meaningless.'' It would determine whether the Lakers would go into the playoffs with the No. 3 or No. 4 seeding in the Western Conference, but not whether that's a difference that mattered. It matched the Lakers against the opponent they most desperately want to beat, but at a moment when desperation didn't appear to be required.

Because the Sacramento Kings were missing the injured Chris Webber, Hedo Turkoglu and Bobby Jackson and had nothing riding on the outcome after clinching the league's best record last week, this game at Staples Center didn't look like much of a challenge for the home team.

That's why it posed such a test.

Would the Lakers care enough to win, inspired by the presence of the Kings (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), by the desire to go into the postseason on a high note, and by a sense of pride?

Or would they let down as they did so many times this season against apparently overmatched teams?

Winning would certify that the Lakers were mentally and emotionally sharp enough to bank a championship threepeat. But losing would suggest they're mentally still back in February, lost in the haze of all those defeats against last-place teams.

After blowing a double-digit lead in the first half and nearly doing the same in the second, the Lakers wore down the Kings bench and won 109-95 in front of 18,997 fans.

The victory gave the Lakers a 58-24 record and the second-best record and third seeding in the conference. It meant they'll face the Portland Trail Blazers in the opening round, instead of the Minnesota Timberwolves. It gave them homecourt advantages for playoff series against anybody except Sacramento (61-21).

More important than any of that, the victory should reassure the Lakers that their heads are screwed on straight as they get ready to start the best-of-five series against Portland on Sunday.

``I think it was definitely important for us to go out and get off to a good start, play as hard as we could for as long as we could,'' Lakers guard Derek Fisher said. ``Obviously, they had guys that weren't going to get a lot of minutes. We had guys that weren't going to play more than 25, 28 minutes. It was a different kind of game.

``I think it's great we were just able to sustain our effort and come out with a good win.''

Considering the Lakers' almost-season-long weakness for letdowns, it's a good thing they didn't hear the Kings talking before the game.

Vlade Divac was asked what the night meant to his team.

``Nothing,'' the Sacramento center replied. ``We were done three games ago. It's a big game for them, I guess. We'll just go ahead and play and have fun.''

For 5 1/2 months, the Lakers have been playing games that meant more to their opponents than to them, and now the $200 sneaker was on the other foot.

Hadn't the Lakers' victory at Sacramento last month sent some kind of message?

``Not at all,'' Divac said. ``That game could have gone either way. I don't think that was a statement at all. They made a statement last year when they won the championship. This year, I don't care about them at all. Or Dallas or San Antonio.''

Mind you, as big as they were talking, the Kings are the team that held a ceremony Tuesday night at Arco Arena to display their Pacific Division championship banner. Talking big, thinking small.

If the Lakers hung Pacific Division championship banners, the Staples Center walls would collapse under the weight.

Across the locker room from Divac, Webber sat in street clothes and offered his similar version of what the game meant to the Kings.

``I think it's a good time for our bench players to get out and play and feel good about themselves,'' said Webber, sidelined for the second game in a row with a sprained right thumb. ``If it was a game that decided who was to get homecourt advantage, then it definitely would be a message game. I don't think it has any meaning.''

The end of the regular season would have lacked any sense of occasion if not for the appearance of that rite of spring, an ad on the arena marquee advertising next year's Clippers tickets.

In the end, the question of seedings and first-round opponents shouldn't matter to the Lakers. They're the team to beat in the playoffs as long as they show their minds and hearts are in it.

With Wednesday's win, they passed that test.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 18, 2002
Words:823
Previous Article:THE SINGIN' IN THIS 'RAIN' NEVER GOES OUT OF STYLE.
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