Sports Nut

The Lakers Channel Muhammad Ali

How will L.A. capture its third straight title? By reviving the rope-a-dope.

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse for the Portland Trail Blazers, there was Sunday’s collapse against the Los Angeles Lakers. OK, this wasn’t quite Reggie Miller versus the Knicks, but what it lacked in monumentality, it made up for with an aura of Hollywood inevitability. Watching the closing moments of the game, even after Portland established a seemingly airtight 4-point lead with 20 seconds to go, you knew it was going to end badly for the Blazers. And then, with the efficiency of James Bond vaporizing the last villain, it happened.

Throughout the whole ordeal, nobody was calmer and more certain about the ending than the Lakers. That’s what gave the game its strange vibe. The first half was a clinic of lethargic, off-kilter hoops, an atonal chorus of whistles, and a bunch of rebounds that nobody wanted. Phil Jackson’s team practically willed the Blazers to take the game from them and still somehow took a 9-point lead into the locker room. Jackson must have gotten on his team for not enduring enough punishment because when the Lakers came back out, they went completely into the tank, going seven minutes without a field goal and allowing the Blazers to peel off an 18-5 run.

At this point, most teams would not—could not—recover. For the Lakers, however, it was a deliberate strategy, the basketball version of the rope-a-dope. Lay back, take the pounding, conserve energy, and let your opponent get it all out of their system. Then, on the brink of defeat, come storming back.

The Lakers are able to succeed with such a risky strategy because they know that when the game becomes a possession-by-possession grind, the advantage is all theirs. Why? Well, first, they have the two most singularly unstoppable players in the game; and second, they have a powerful hierarchy on the team. Rick Fox, Derek Fisher, Robert Horry, and the other fair-to-middling talents that fill out the roster understand absolutely and without question that they will not take a game-winning shot unless they are screamingly open, just as Horry was on Sunday when he sank his game-winning three.

Don’t underestimate the second point. Most teams, including Portland, are filled with mediocre players who truly believe that they can be the hero. In crunch time, there is an awfully good chance that, say, Damon Stoudamire is going to uncork a 30-footer with six or eight hands in his face. This never happens to the Lakers. On the last possession, you never see Samaki Walker forcing his way to the rack with five guys draped on him.

Can the Lakers rope-a-dope their way to a third championship? Their likely next opponent, the San Antonio Spurs, rely on a similar two-man attack, point guard Tony Parker and power forward/center Tim Duncan. But as good as the tandem is, it is an inferior model to Kobe and Shaq. The Spurs are strong, disciplined, and consistent, but they don’t have the knockout power needed to beat the rope-a-dope.

The Mavericks and the Kings do have knockout power. Dallas’ performance in the first round was simply stunning. Minnesota is a pretty good team, with two excellent go-to players and a strong supporting cast. But the Mavericks’ deadly arsenal of jump-shooters blew them out of the gym. Dallas’ only weakness is on-the-court heirarchy. If the game gets tight, will Dirk Nowitzki demand and receive the ball? That’s what should happen, but if a joker like Nick Van Exel is on the floor, it might not. Even starting point guard Steve Nash, although incredibly gifted, might not give up the rock in a crucial possession.

The Kings have a fine complement of blow-out-the-doors shooters and are probably a little more disciplined than the Mavericks, with a more varied inside-out game. But look at what a rough go of it they had with Utah’s geriatric two-man system. John Stockton and Karl Malone are great players, but if you can’t dispatch them with relative ease, what hope do you have against Kobe and Shaq?

Then there’s the East. It hardly needs to be discussed. Only the New Jersey Nets have the firepower to stand on the court with the Lakers, but they have one fatal deficiency: no money player. Jason Kidd is an exquisite point guard but a crummy shooter. So who takes the game-deciding shot? Keith Van Horn has a propensity for making bad decisions. Kenyon Martin lacks range. Kerry Kittles has the full package except for the stature on the team to demand the ball. So don’t be surprised if the Nets’ season winds up in the hands of someone like … Lucious Harris.