Unstoppable Having demolished the vaunted Spurs, the Lakers enter the Finals with a shot at history: an unbeaten postseason

June 03, 2001

A black Ferrari emerged from the players' parking area at the
Staples Center last Friday night, a car even sleeker and faster
than its driver, Kobe Bryant. Though the light was red when he
reached the intersection, Bryant cruised through the signal as
if it were merely a suggestion, and traffic slowed to let him
pass. The other drivers seemed to realize instantly what the Los
Angeles Lakers' playoff opponents have learned the hard way:
that neither Bryant nor the rest of the Lakers can be stopped by
ordinary means. They are blowing past all comers, racing toward
what could be the greatest postseason in NBA history.

Once they had completed their four-game evisceration of the San
Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference finals with a 111-82 rout
on Sunday, which ran their playoff record to 11-0, only one
question was worth asking: Will the Lakers become the first team
to go through all four rounds of the postseason undefeated? They
seem equipped to answer in the affirmative. With Bryant, their
acrobatic swingman, and center Shaquille O'Neal operating at
their customarily lofty levels and guard Derek Fisher reaching
new heights, they are playing with a cohesiveness and confidence
that must be chilling to the rest of the league, which might be
watching a dynasty take shape before its very eyes.

If you think either of the Eastern finalists, the Milwaukee
Bucks and the Philadelphia 76ers (page 46), have a chance of
taking even a game from Los Angeles in the Finals, please
refrain from operating heavy machinery until your head clears.
If you believe either team will keep the Lakers from
steamrolling to their second straight championship, well,
psychological counseling may be in order. Said David Robinson
after being swept, "There's no way any Eastern team can beat
them."

The Lakers also won their last eight regular-season games, and
their next defeat, whenever it occurs, will be more than two
months after their last one, a 79-78 loss to the New York Knicks
on April 1. That's partly because their postseason has been so
protracted that it has lasted longer than many Hollywood
marriages, but it's mostly because of their remarkable
consistency, which even during last year's championship run was
not one of their hallmarks. They have been so dominant that the
league would be wise to invest in a rubber stamp with LAKERS,
2000-2001 on it for use in revising the playoff record book.
Their 11 consecutive victories leave them only one short of the
mark for the longest winning streak in a single postseason, set
by the 1999 Spurs.

Even if they don't sweep the Finals, the Lakers have an excellent
chance to surpass the '99 Spurs, '91 Chicago Bulls and '89
Detroit Pistons, who all went 15-2, and finish with the best
record since the league went to its current playoff format in
1983-84. Coach Phil Jackson has already set one individual mark:
The win over San Antonio gave him his 19th straight series
victory, breaking Red Auerbach's mark of 18. "All the records
would be nice," Bryant said, "but we're only concerned with
playing the team that's on the court with us, not all those teams
from history."

The teams on the court, however, are providing precious little
challenge. The Lakers aren't only beating opponents; they are
demoralizing them. In the first round they hastened the firing of
Portland Trail Blazers coach Mike Dunleavy, whose team devolved
into a squabbling, whining mess by the first half of Game 1
(though admittedly the fragile Blazers only needed a nudge to
send them over the edge). In Round 2 Los Angeles, particularly
O'Neal, battered both the Sacramento Kings' bodies and their
self-esteem. "I would say our confidence is shaken a little
bit--at least mine is," Sacramento backup center Scot Pollard said
after Game 2. One game later Kings All-Star forward Chris Webber
described himself as "wallowing in self-pity."

Yet those teams were giddy optimists compared with the Spurs, who
appeared to realize during their 104-90 loss in Game 1 that they
were in over their heads. L.A. took the first two games in San
Antonio, then subjected the Spurs to a pair of thrashings at the
Staples Center, by 39 and 29 points, that could leave them
traumatized. Former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson, who sat along
the baseline for Game 4, no doubt recognized the dazed look in
the Spurs' eyes. "Believe it or not," San Antonio guard Derek
Anderson said after being blown out 111-72 in Game 3, "a week ago
we thought we could beat these guys."

The Spurs didn't lose their heart; Los Angeles took it from them.
No conference finalist in recent memory has so clearly outclassed
its opponents. At week's end the Lakers' average margin of
victory in the postseason, 15.5 points, was larger than any
championship team's ever. They have played dogged
defense--especially against the Spurs, whom they hounded into
38.4% shooting--while on offense the ball fairly whistles as they
whip it inside, outside and around the perimeter. That crisp
passing has forced teams to rotate to keep up, a losing battle
that has often left Bryant, Fisher, Rick Fox and Brian Shaw
either with open jump shots or with defenders running at them,
allowing them to pump-fake and penetrate. Against San Antonio,
one of the top defensive teams in league history, L.A. shot a
torrid 47.1%.

No one in the Lakers' supporting cast has taken better advantage
of these offensive opportunities than Fisher, who missed the
first 62 games of the season recovering from surgery to repair a
stress fracture in his foot. His performance on Sunday, when he
led the team with 28 points and made 11 of 13 shots, including
six of seven three-pointers, was the best of his outstanding
postseason. At week's end he had made 25 of 49 three-point
attempts while committing only six turnovers in 418 minutes.
Although L.A.'s dominance has been widely attributed to the
cease-fire in Bryant's and O'Neal's who's-the-man? hostilities,
Fisher's return had a galvanizing effect. The Lakers, who went
41-21 in Fisher's absence, are 26-5 since his return. "The key to
this whole thing is right down there," said Los Angeles forward
Robert Horry, pointing to Fisher's locker after Game 3. "When
that cat put his uniform back on, it all started to come
together."

Although Fisher, 26, has always been a hard-nosed defender known
for his ability to draw charging fouls, his newly developed
marksmanship--he shot 38.5% from the floor before this year--was an
unexpected bonus. "For three or four months after the surgery I
couldn't do much running or jumping, so all I could do was
shoot," he says. "Now it's paying off."

Much of Bryant's newfound trust in his teammates is the result
of Fisher's knocking down rainbow shot after rainbow shot. "He's
become that third scorer we needed," says O'Neal. "He's been so
consistent that when we kick it out and he doesn't make the
jumper, it's a shock."

Los Angeles also missed Fisher's stabilizing influence, on the
court and behind closed doors. Because of his selfless play and
his soft-spoken but straightforward personality, his words carry
great weight in the locker room. "Nobody on the club is more
respected than Fish," says Fox. Fisher gives honest, analytical
assessments, both to the media and to his teammates. He didn't
shy from saying that Shaq wasn't in top shape earlier this
season, or that Bryant was trying to be a one-man team.

No one holds Fisher in higher regard than Bryant, who waged
countless practice wars with him in 1996-97, when they were
rookies battling for playing time. Bryant was the flashy 6'6"
high schooler and Fisher the anonymous 6'1" guard from
Arkansas-Little Rock. "Kobe let me know he wasn't going to back
down because he was younger," Fisher says, "and I let him know I
wasn't going to back down because he was bigger and more well
known." One day in Milwaukee they engaged in a hard-fought
one-on-one duel, and while neither player can recall who won,
both remember that by the time it was over, their antagonism had
turned into respect.

That wasn't the first time Fisher had to prove himself on the
court. Growing up in Little Rock, he would tag along to the gym
with his brother, Duane Washington, even though Duane, who would
play 19 NBA games in 1987-88 and '92-93, was 10 years his senior.
By the time he was nine, Fisher was launching his left-handed
jumper against players much older, and as a teenager he found
himself in pickup games with Arkansas players and alumni,
including NBA star Sidney Moncrief.

Still, Fisher didn't make his high school varsity as a
sophomore, a disappointment that has fueled his workouts ever
since. Though he was Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year as a
senior, he was flying well under the radar of nearly everyone
but Jerry West, the Lakers' executive vice president at the
time, who took Fisher with the 24th pick. He's made West look
like a visionary by working his way from 11th man to much-needed
third scoring option.

In some ways the resurgence triggered by Fisher's return is a
case of Lakers history repeating itself. The only streak in
franchise history more impressive than the current one is the
NBA-record 33 straight wins during the 1971-72 season, which
ended in a Los Angeles championship. Forward Jim McMillian, who
became a starter when Elgin Baylor retired nine games into the
season, was that team's Fisher--a solid but unspectacular player
whose insertion into the lineup set off a chain reaction that
allowed the club to reach great heights.

These Lakers still have the formality of the Finals to take care
of before they can be favorably compared with that team, but the
case can be made that they have already put together the most
impressive single-season playoff run in history (chart, left).
None of the three teams that went 15-2 in the playoffs had a
first-round opponent who finished more than two games over .500.
The Lakers, though, have had no such patsies--all three of their
victims won more than 50 games, including the Spurs, whose 58-24
record was the best regular-season mark in the league. "I didn't
think any team could make us look as inferior as they've made us
look," Robinson said after Game 3, "but then, they've made a lot
of very good teams look mediocre."

That's largely because the Lakers have developed a resolve that
was missing even last season. A year ago they lost what would
have been series-clinching games on the road against all four of
their opponents, but they have allowed themselves no such lapses
in these playoffs. In Portland, an hour before Game 3 in L.A.'s
best-of-five series against the Blazers, Bryant was walking
through the locker room when he saw Scottie Pippen being
interviewed on television. "Today," Bryant said to Pippen, as if
he could hear him, "is your last day of work."

So it was, for Los Angeles put the Blazers out of their misery
with a coldly efficient 99-86 win. "That game may have been the
most important one in this run because it catapulted us into
believing that we could not only repeat what we did last year,
but might surpass it," says Fisher. "Knowing we had gained the
ability to close out teams, especially on the road, felt like it
was the final stage in our development."

Not quite. The final stage is likely to come on a June evening
in Milwaukee or Philadelphia, when the Lakers hoist another
championship trophy and take their places in history. The guess
here is that it will take them only four games to do it, because
this team is like Bryant's Ferrari--a finely tuned machine that
gets where it's going in a hurry.

COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH COVER Get Out of Our Way! Shaq and the Lakers are taking no prisoners COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Streaking By repeatedly taking it to San Antonio's Twin Towers, Bryant helped extend Los Angeles's run to 19 straight wins. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH First in flight The hard-nosed Fisher (above, left) brought stability to the Lakers, while Bryant provided reckless abandon. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Thunder alley O'Neal has dominated the paint throughout the playoffs, reducing opposing centers to masses of self-doubt.

Degrees of Difficulty

Since the current four-round playoff format was adopted in
1983-84, seven teams have reached the Finals undefeated or with
a single loss. Of those, the 2000-01 Lakers had the most
difficult path through the conference finals, facing three teams
(the Blazers, the Kings and the Spurs) who finished the regular
season a combined 163-83. Here's how the other finalists'
opposition stacks up. --David Sabino

RECORD THROUGH PLAYOFF
THREE OPPONENTS' FINALS
ROUNDS WINNING PCT. RESULT

2000-01 Lakers 11-0 .663 ???
1998-99 Spurs 11-1 .607 Beat Knicks 4-1
1995-96 Bulls 11-1 .606 Beat Sonics 4-2
1988-89 Lakers 11-0 .573 Lost 4-0 to Pistons
1985-86 Celtics 11-1 .557 Beat Rockets 4-2
1990-91 Bulls 11-1 .541 Beat Lakers 4-1
1986-87 Lakers 11-1 .480 Beat Celtics 4-2

L.A. is playing with a cohesiveness that must be chilling to the
rest of the league.

"I didn't think any team could make us look as inferior as the
Lakers did," Robinson said.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)