Jun 11, 2002 11:07 AM

This is probably our final NBA column for the 2001-2002 season as the Los Angeles Lakers are likely to wrap up a third consecutive NBA Championship within the next few days, perhaps even before many of you read these pages.

After taking a pair of games at home against the New Jersey Nets, the Lakers played a strong final five minutes to win Game 3 and take a virtually insurmountable lead.

The Lakers blew out to a huge 23-point lead in Game 1 before New Jersey rallied back to almost have a shot to steal the opener. But the Lakers prevailed and perhaps their lack of sustained intensity propelled them to a focused and very solid win over the Nets in Game 2.

Los Angeles again got out to a strong early lead in Game 3 only to see New Jersey rally to tie the contest after three quarters. The Nets then had a seven-point lead through the first half of the final quarter but the Lakers’ talent and experience enabled the two time defending champs to be poised for a third straight title and possibly their first four game sweep in the Championship round in their current run.

It would be the first sweep in the NBA Finals since 1995 when Houston swept the Orlando Magic in a series that saw a young Shaquille O’neal contend with the experienced Hakeem Olajuwon.

As good as the Lakers are, and have been for the past several seasons, we may have also learned quite a bit about some other teams in the league, especially in the Western Conference. It certainly can be argued that, despite being the champs, the Lakers were not the best team in the NBA this season.

Many observers strongly feel that Sacramento was indeed the league’s best team and that had Game 6 in the Western Conference final series against the Lakers been more fairly officiated, especially in the fourth quarter of that game, that the Kings and not the Lakers would be this season’s championship team.

Sacramento did have several legitimate chances to dethrone the Lakers but none perhaps as likely as when they had a double-digit fourth quarter lead in Game 6 of that series. The Lakers went to the free throw line an incredible 27 times in the fourth quarter, a series of occurrences so bizarre that none less than consumer advocate Ralph Nader has gone public with a complaint about the NBA and its officials.

Sacramento might have been prevented from keeping that double-digit lead if the foul calls had not been so one sided in that quarter. The Kings still had the chance to win the series on their home court in game seven but missing 14 of 30 free throws did them in.

San Antonio must also be given their props for challenging the Lakers throughout most of their series. Although the Lakers won in five games the Spurs led for most of the minutes in the series before succumbing to Los Angeles’ patented fourth quarter runs. Spurs’ PG Tony Parker gained invaluable experience in that series, making a name for himself, and San Antonio figures to be a contender again in 2002-03, David Robinson’s final season in a long and productive career.

New Jersey just has no way to handle both Shaq and Kobe Bryant. Shaq presents some unique problems and we can see that the Nets have made many of their runs when Shaq is on the bench. The Nets have to find a way to get Shaq into both early and late foul trouble if they are to win even a game in the series. Easier said than done.

The Lakers are 4 to 4½-point favorites to wrap up the NBA Championship in Game 5 on Wednesday. The Nets have played hard and should give their maximum effort to prolong the series for at least a fifth game which would also be played in New Jersey on Friday night. The Lakers provided a push for many backers this past Sunday, although in some places they were bet up to 3½-point favorites in their 106-103 win.

New Jersey is worth a play at a line of at least +4 in Game 4. Should the Nets win, the Lakers then become the play to wrap up the series and the season in Game 5, provided they are no more than a 3-point favorite.