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ON BASKETBALL

Lakers have perked up as the playoffs drag on

The big winners in "NBA Playoffs, The Director's Cut" are -- who else? -- the Los Angeles Lakers. And we haven't even finished the second round yet. (The NBA went to a Big Dig timetable for the postseason.)

The Lakers have five days to get ready for the Western Conference finals after storming back against San Antonio. That makes the TV folks happy because the Lakers are basically the NBA's version of NASCAR: You watch them to see whether there's going to be a big pileup. A lot of people watch NASCAR.

The good news for TV is bad news for everyone else hoping to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy. While a lot of people liked the Spurs (including yours truly), the thinking always has been that the Lakers would be a tough out if they got their act together. They did against the Spurs, although not without some help from the Spurs themselves (and whoever was keeping time in Game 5).

Los Angeles won because its players finally decided to play defense. The Lakers' well-known weakness the past few years -- and they don't have many -- has been the pick-and-roll. Why? Because Shaq won't step out and trap the opposing point guard. Because he didn't do it in the Western Conference finals two years ago, Mike Bibby is a rich man today. Because he didn't do it against the Spurs in the first two games, Tony Parker was unstoppable.

After two losses, Phil Jackson decided to stop Parker -- a wise decision because he saw what happened when he didn't. He made Shaq step out, and, this being the playoffs, Shaq decided to give it a try. Jackson put the Lakers' fate in the hands of San Antonio's perimeter shooters, who, to be charitable, are iffy. The Lakers denied Parker any entree to the hoop, forcing him to pass to teammates who couldn't make open shots. The Lakers made Tim Duncan give up the ball in the post when Karl Malone wasn't in Duncan's head with all his cagy veteran tricks. And the Lakers won. The Spurs couldn't make shots, making you wonder just how bad Ron Mercer must have been playing to be waived in late February. Two words for Gregg Popovich: Brent Barry.

The Kings-Timberwolves series has been occasionally entertaining, although if you took the "over" expecting the usual Kings scoring fest, you're in trouble. The sight of Chris Webber looking like Walter Brennan in "The Real McCoys" is hard to take. Webber takes a lot of heat, some of it deserved. But how can you not appreciate what he's trying to do. He's basically playing on one leg and, in some cases, putting up very strong numbers.

Webber turned 31 in March. But he's a dog-years 31. This is his 11th season and there's a lot of wear and tear. He has had all year to rehab his knee and he still drags it as if it had a ball and chain. Webber has four years (and around $80 million) left on his deal. Vlade Divac may retire; some say he already has and doesn't know it. This could be the last chance for the Kings as we've come to know them over the years -- and with Game 7 in Minnesota, history is not on Sacramento's side.

The Eastern equivalent of Webber is Jason Kidd. He and Webber were born 22 days apart in March of 1973, and about the only difference between them right now is that Kidd isn't limping. But he clearly isn't the Jason Kidd we've seen the last two years. If he was, we'd be dreading another Nets berth in the NBA Finals. You expected Kidd to demand an on-court IV during Game 5, the memorable triple-overtime game; he had little for Game 6.

Game 6 was Sunday night. Game 7 is Thursday night. Kidd could get a knee replacement by then and be ready. Do you think Larry Brown or Lawrence Frank really needs more than 15 minutes to prepare after going at it for six games? And here's what each coach should say: "That round ball? It is supposed to go through the orange rim, guys." The winner of the Pistons-Nets series will be known around 10:30 p.m. Thursday. Two nights later, one of them will be in the Eastern Conference finals.

At this point, we all thought the Pacers would have put the Heat away in the same merciless and efficient fashion as they dispatched the Celtics. It certainly looked that way after Games 1 and 2. But Miami has found a way to galvanize the notoriously apathetic basketball fan base in Southern Florida to the point where the Heat have not lost a home game since March 2.

When Danny Ainge talks of building a young, athletic, offensive-minded team, he can look no further than Miami for inspiration. (But, as Danny would tell you, that is a team of lottery picks, and the Celtics had to go out and make the playoffs!)

We all figured the Pacers might eventually get pushed -- in the conference finals. But Miami is giving them a legitimate scare. Either Indiana isn't that good -- or the Celtics were really, really bad. 

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