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Indiana, Lakers in best
shape for Final

May 25, 2004 7:19 AM

The NBA’s version of the Final Four is down to the Lakers, Minnesota, Indiana and Detroit. Just think, another month and the NBA season is over!

Los Angeles dethroned last season’s champion San Antonio more than a week ago. Three of the four remaining teams were Division winners this season and the fourth, Detroit, had a better record than Atlantic champ New Jersey. The Pistons went on to beat the Nets in seven games.

Both of the teams forecast in this column last fall to meet in the NBA Finals — New Jersey and Sacramento — each lost in the second round. Sacramento’s failure to advance can largely be attributed to a lack of depth largely created by the absence of Bobby Jackson who provided such a lift coming off the bench.

Jackson was out since the All Star break and the Kings also were without a fully healthy Chris Webber. Subjected to immense criticism by the rabid Sacramento fans, Webber had not fully recovered from the injury that caused him to miss the first half of this season. Thus, the Kings fell to Minnesota in seven games.

New Jersey simply lost to a better team. The Pistons have enough offense to complement their outstanding defense to make them a formidable obstacle for both Indiana and the eventual Western Conference champion should the Pistons make it to the NBA Finals.

In fact, Indiana as well will be a legitimate title threat. The Pacers had the best record in the league this season and will enjoy home court advantage if they reach the NBA Finals. The Pacers won three more games than any other team (Minnesota was next best) and have been steady all season. The Pacers were fortunate to edge Detroit in Game 1 of the Eastern final over the weekend and are favored to take a 2-0 lead to Detroit for Games 3 or 4.

Detroit covered the pointspread in its Game 1 loss and will be favored in both of its home games. Detroit will be a good play to win and cover Game 3 regardless of being down 0-2 or tied at a game apiece. Game 4 becomes interesting since the series could be anywhere between Indiana up 3-0 or Detroit leading 2-1.

Unless Detroit is down 0-3 entering Game 4, Indiana — as a slight underdog — would be the preferred play. Back home again in Indiana on Memorial Day Sunday (barring a four game sweep) the Pacers fans will be in a festive mood following the running earlier that day of the 500. Indiana will be in an excellent situation. Game 5 would call for a play on the Pacers as they’d be looking to perhaps wrap up the series if leading 3-1, break a 2-2 tie or stay alive if down 3-1.

With their win on Sunday, Minnesota assured a return home for Game 5 in what is now a best 3-of-5 series. Los Angeles now has the extra home game as a result of the split in Minneapolis. Of course Minnesota would still host a decisive seventh game so the Lakers almost need to sweep Games 3 and 4 four to retain their home court edge. The Lakers could also win Game 5 on the road if they split the next two games at home.

After looking brilliant in the opener the Lakers appeared disoriented in Game 2 as the Timberwolves took charge early and were never headed. Perhaps the Lakers got complacent from the combination of the easy Game 1 victory and the early departure in Game 2 of the injured Sam Cassell less than a minute into the contest. Play became chippy in the fourth quarter with technical fouls parading down.

The Lakers opened as 9-point favorites in Game 3, partially due to the questionable status of Cassell. On the surface this seems an unusually high impost for the Lakers to handle given the presence of Hack-a-Shaq down the stretch and the overall talent of Minnesota.

In their opening round win over Houston, the Lakers won home games by 1, 14 and 19 points. Against San Antonio, the Lakers prevailed at Staples Center by 24, 8 and 12.

In the first two rounds of the playoffs, Minnesota lost by double digits once at both Denver and Sacramento. It is not unprecedented for the Timberwolves to suffer a blowout loss, but the value is with Minnesota even without Cassell.

The strategy followed here will be to take the generous points with Minnesota in Game 3 and, if successful, probably sit out Game 4. If the Lakers win and cover Game 3, the strategy will be to again take Minnesota in Game 4 in the zig-zag formula. If the series returns to Minnesota tied at 2-2, the Lakers would be the play in Game 5.

Minnesota would be the play in Game 5 if down 3-1 in the series. Should the Wolves sweep in Los Angeles and return home up 3-1, the Lakers would be an outstanding play in Game 5 to extend the series. As things stand at press time the Lakers are in excellent position to win the series in 5 or 6, although we can expect Minnesota to give at least one strong effort on the West Coast.