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Acid test for Lakers

 






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/ May 2, 2004

This season, the Los Angeles Lakers and their newly assembled "Fabulous Four" were under a microscope. It's all been a prelude to their imminent true test; the test they failed last year. The defending champions and winners of fifteen consecutive games, the San Antonio Spurs are their opponent, and just pulled off a Game 1 win in Texas. Last year, the Spurs pulled off a masterfully crafted ambush of the Lakers' run at a fourth consecutive championship. This year they are intent on wiping out the dreams of the Lakers' Fab Four and continuing their trek to the top of the NBA's hierarchy. It was for this moment that the Lakers' management made their unforgettable splash in the free-agency market last summer. So, turn up the magnification on the microscope because the Lakers' legends are finally facing their acid test.

Last season, the Spurs swept the Lakers aside with rather more ease than many expected. The Lakers exacted small revenge in the regular season taking three of the four encounters with San Antonio, but that will be of no consolation if the Lakers are eliminated in the second-round of the playoffs for the second year in a row. After all, at the start of the season, this team was given serious consideration as the greatest team ever to be assembled. Losing in the second round of the playoffs would not provide wonderful evidence to support such a claim.

Last year, this contest effectively translated into the NBA Finals, with the only other true contender, the Sacramento Kings, playing in the absence of Chris Webber. This year the Kings have Webber in the team (healthy or not) and are a legitimate factor in the chase for the 2004 Championship, but the Spurs-Lakers series will be viewed as the playoff's biggest and most significant battle, and with good reason.

With Kobe Bryant defying logic, playing sparkling basketball while under the cloud of his court case, his battle with the tenacious Bruce Bowen will be a big key to the series. As, of course, will the Gary Payton, the veteran, versus Tony Parker, the young whiz-kid, contest.

Some people have said they would rather watch paint dry than some of the first-round playoff series'. Ironically enough, it is the paint where onlookers' eyes will be firmly fixed in this series. Tim Duncan, the two-time league MVP and leader of the Spurs, will be immersed in one of the most anticipated individual contests of recent years: His battle with Karl Malone, viewed by many as the greatest ever power-forward, and Shaquille O'Neal, the most dominant center basketball has seen in recent memory.

The expectations in Lakerland are high enough normally, but with revenge on their minds and four future Hall-of-Famers in front of their eyes, there is no margin for error. The Lakers assembled a team to destroy all-comers. Now their ultimate challenge waits, in the shape of the NBA's potential new dynasty. Now we will now just how good they truly are. And on Sunday, the Spurs successfully delivered the first punch.

Gordon Simpson is an aspiring sports-writer from the U.K.



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