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Unstoppable
Phil Taylor
June 04, 2001
Having demolished the vaunted Spurs, the Lakers enter the Finals with a shot at history: an unbeaten postseason
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June 04, 2001

Unstoppable

Having demolished the vaunted Spurs, the Lakers enter the Finals with a shot at history: an unbeaten postseason

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RECORD THROUGH THREE ROUNDS

PLAYOFF OPPONENTS WINNING PCT.

FINALS RESULT

2000-01 Lakers

11-0

.663

???

1998-99 Spurs

11-1

.607

Beat Knicks 4-1

1995-96 Bulls

11-1

.606

Beat Sonics 4-2

1988-89 Lakers

11-0

.573

Lost 4-0 to Pistons

1985-86 Celtics

11-1

.557

Beat Rockets 4-2

1990-91 Bulls

11-1

.541

Beat Lakers 4-1

1986-87 Lakers

11-1

.480

Beat Celtics 4-2

A Black Ferrari emerged from the players' parking area at the Staples Center last Friday night, a car even sleeker and faster than its driver, Kobe Bryant. Though the light was red when he reached the intersection, Bryant cruised through the signal as if it were merely a suggestion, and traffic slowed to let him pass. The other drivers seemed to realize instantly what the Los Angeles Lakers' playoff opponents have learned the hard way: that neither Bryant nor the rest of the Lakers can be stopped by ordinary means. They are blowing past all comers, racing toward what could be the greatest postseason in NBA history.

Once they had completed their four-game evisceration of the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference finals with a 111-82 rout on Sunday, which ran their playoff record to 11-0, only one question was worth asking: Will the Lakers become the first team to go through all four rounds of the postseason undefeated? They seem equipped to answer in the affirmative. With Bryant, their acrobatic swingman, and center Shaquille O'Neal operating at their customarily lofty levels and guard Derek Fisher reaching new heights, they are playing with a cohesiveness and confidence that must be chilling to the rest of the league, which might be watching a dynasty take shape before its very eyes.

If you think either of the Eastern finalists, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Philadelphia 76ers (page 46), have a chance of taking even a game from Los Angeles in the Finals, please refrain from operating heavy machinery until your head clears. If you believe either team will keep the Lakers from steamrolling to their second straight championship, well, psychological counseling may be in order. Said David Robinson after being swept, "There's no way any Eastern team can beat them."

The Lakers also won their last eight regular-season games, and their next defeat, whenever it occurs, will be more than two months after their last one, a 79-78 loss to the New York Knicks on April 1. That's partly because their postseason has been so protracted that it has lasted longer than many Hollywood marriages, but it's mostly because of their remarkable consistency, which even during last year's championship run was not one of their hallmarks. They have been so dominant that the league would be wise to invest in a rubber stamp with LAKERS, 2000-2001 on it for use in revising the playoff record book. Their 11 consecutive victories leave them only one short of the mark for the longest winning streak in a single postseason, set by the 1999 Spurs.

Even if they don't sweep the Finals, the Lakers have an excellent chance to surpass the '99 Spurs, '91 Chicago Bulls and '89 Detroit Pistons, who all went 15-2, and finish with the best record since the league went to its current playoff format in 1983-84. Coach Phil Jackson has already set one individual mark: The win over San Antonio gave him his 19th straight series victory, breaking Red Auerbach's mark of 18. "All the records would be nice," Bryant said, "but we're only concerned with playing the team that's on the court with us, not all those teams from history."

The teams on the court, however, are providing precious little challenge. The Lakers aren't only beating opponents; they are demoralizing them. In the first round they hastened the firing of Portland Trail Blazers coach Mike Dunleavy, whose team devolved into a squabbling, whining mess by the first half of Game 1 (though admittedly the fragile Blazers only needed a nudge to send them over the edge). In Round 2 Los Angeles, particularly O'Neal, battered both the Sacramento Kings' bodies and their self-esteem. "I would say our confidence is shaken a little bit—at least mine is," Sacramento backup center Scot Pollard said after Game 2. One game later Kings All-Star forward Chris Webber described himself as "wallowing in self-pity."

Yet those teams were giddy optimists compared with the Spurs, who appeared to realize during their 104-90 loss in Game 1 mat they were in over their heads. L.A. took the first two games in San Antonio, then subjected the Spurs to a pair of thrashings at the Staples Center, by 39 and 29 points, mat could leave them traumatized. Former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson, who sat along the baseline for Game 4, no doubt recognized the dazed look in the Spurs' eyes. "Believe it or not," San Antonio guard Derek Anderson said after being blown out 111-72 in Game 3, "a week ago we thought we could beat these guys."

The Spurs didn't lose their heart; Los Angeles took it from them. No conference finalist in recent memory has so clearly outclassed its opponents. At week's end the Lakers' average margin of victory in the postseason, 15-5 points, was larger than any championship team's ever. They have played dogged defense—especially against the Spurs, whom they hounded into 38.4% shooting—while on offense the ball fairly whistles as they whip it inside, outside and around the perimeter. That crisp passing has forced teams to rotate to keep up, a losing battle mat has often left Bryant, Fisher, Rick Fox and Brian Shaw either with open jump shots or with defenders running at them, allowing them to pump-fake and penetrate. Against San Antonio, one of the top defensive teams in league history, L.A. shot a torrid 47.1%.

No one in the Lakers' supporting cast has taken better advantage of these offensive opportunities man Fisher, who missed the first 62 games of the season recovering from surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot. His performance on Sunday, when he led the team with 28 points and made 11 of 13 shots, including six of seven three-pointers, was the best of his outstanding postseason. At week's end he had made 25 of 49 three-point attempts while committing only six turnovers in 418 minutes. Although L.A.'s dominance has been widely attributed to the cease-fire in Bryant's and O'Neal's who's-the-man? hostilities, Fisher's return had a galvanizing effect. The Lakers, who went 41-21 in Fisher's absence, are 26-5 since his return. "The key to this whole thing is right down there," said Los Angeles forward Robert Horry, pointing to Fisher's locker after Game 3. "When that cat put his uniform back on, it all started to come together."

Although Fisher, 26, has always been a hard-nosed defender known for his ability to draw charging fouls, his newly developed marksmanship—he shot 38.5% from the floor before this year—was an unexpected bonus. "For three or four months after the surgery I couldn't do much running or jumping, so all I could do was shoot," he says. "Now it's paying off."

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