The Los Angeles Lakers spent the past five months proving they were capable of learning Phil Jackson's triangle offense, showing that All-Stars Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant could play nicely together and demonstrating an ability to dominate for weeks on end.
Having won 67 of their 82 regular-season games and the grudging respect of their critics, the Lakers are certainly the team to beat when the NBA playoffs begin today. The question is, can they be beaten? In the past 10 years, only five teams that finished the regular season with the best record went on to win the NBA title. The Chicago Bulls did it four times during their run of six championships. Will these Lakers be the next dynasty-in-the-making, or the next disappointment?
Considering the overall strength of the Western Conference this season, where six of the eight teams won 50 or more games, the road to the NBA Finals and a chance at the storied franchise's first championship in 12 years might resemble one of those clogged freeways with which the Lakers are so familiar.
Here's their likely itinerary: It starts with the flaky but still dangerous Sacramento Kings, who beat the Lakers only once in four games yet lost the three others by a combined 10 points. Given that the Lakers lack a true power forward, it's no surprise that Chris Webber has averaged 23 points and 11 rebounds against them.
It could include a second-round matchup with the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, the team that swept the Lakers in last year's conference semifinals but will play their opening series against the Phoenix Suns without All-Pro Tim Duncan.
It might wind up with a conference final against either the Portland Trail Blazers, who split their series with Los Angeles before fading during the second half of the season, or the Utah Jazz, the most experienced team in the playoffs with Karl Malone and John Stockton looking at their last run at a ring.
"The East is going to be competitive, but the West is going to be more competitive," said Indiana Pacers veteran Sam Perkins. "The Lakers have everything nice on paper, but everyone is going to be coming at them."
As dominant as the Lakers have been this season -- putting together winning streaks of 16, 19 and 12 games -- there are some imperfections in this seemingly spotless recipe.
The most glaring is O'Neal's free-throw shooting. While he showed improvement at times on his career average of 53.6 percent, he wound up at 52.4 percent. O'Neal and the Lakers are still susceptible to the "Hack-A-Shaq" strategy, as evidenced by this week's loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
Another potential glitch is the team's three-point shooting. Since playoff games are often halfcourt struggles, the ability to get off a last-second three when the offense breaks down is crucial. The Lakers shot 32.9 percent on threes, putting them seventh among the eight Western Conference playoff teams.
"I don't think we're a great outside shooting team, but with Shaq we don't have to rely on outside shooting," said Lakers assistant Tex Winter.
Then there's the dearth of experience at the late stages of the playoffs. As a team, the Lakers have not been to the Finals since 1991 and have made it to the conference finals only once in the three years since O'Neal and Bryant started playing together.
But several Lakers have been on teams that either won championships or reached the Finals. Point guard Ron Harper played on the past three championship teams in Chicago and backup center John Salley played on two in Detroit. Robert Horry has two rings from his years in Houston. O'Neal and Brian Shaw were teammates in Orlando when the Magic were swept by the Rockets in the 1995 Finals.
Also working in their favor is Jackson. If the regular season proved anything, it was that Jackson could be just as successful in Los Angeles coaching players such as O'Neal and Bryant as he was with the Bulls coaching Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
There are those who are confident that the Lakers will raise their regular season performance during the playoffs. Their league-best 31-10 road record -- conversely, no team in the Eastern Conference was over .500 during the regular seeason -- bodes well when it comes the post-season.
Mostly it's because of O'Neal, who at 28 finally has become the force many expected him to be for the past few years. He finished the regular season as the league's top scorer and its second-leading rebounder. He also led all centers in assists per game.
Bryant has become the perfect complement to O'Neal, turning into one of the best defensive guards in the league. Bryant could be just as important in the playoffs as O'Neal, given potential matchups against players such as Portland's Steve Smith, Indiana's Reggie Miller or New York's Allan Houston. Winter, who has been at Jackson's side since their years together in Chicago, said recently that he has more confidence in this team than he did in a number of the Bulls teams.
"I think it's been a little easier road for us," said Winter. `But the one thing the Bulls had was a confidence that came from playing with Michael. With Michael you always had a chance to win and you usually did."
The way the Lakers have stormed through the regular season, they should be as big a favorite to win as the Bulls were for much of the past decade. But the best regular-season record doesn't always translate into an NBA championship.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service