How The Mighty Are Falling Phil Jackson's ticker isn't the only indication that Western teams are vulnerable

May 18, 2003

At week's end, suddenly, it was possible to imagine a scenario in
which the winner of the NBA's dominant Western Conference would
lose in the Finals, either because of plain mala fortuna or
because old weaknesses had resurfaced or recent ones had become
more manifest. Consider this updated look at the four Western
semifinalists:

--The three-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, whose
regular season had been something of a soap opera, turned the
Western semis into a prime-time drama--specifically, ER. Coach
Phil Jackson, who for a week had complained of tightness and
chest pains, underwent an angioplasty last Saturday morning in
L.A. to clear his left anterior descending artery, which had
become more than 90% blocked. The two-hour procedure came about
12 hours after Jackson had coached the Lakers to a 110-95 victory
over the San Antonio Spurs in Game 3 and about 24 hours before he
watched L.A.'s 99-95 series-tying Game 4 win at home. He called
in one halftime order to acting coach Jim Cleamons: Tell our guys
to start setting screens instead of just exchanging places. The
57-year-old Jackson made the trip to San Antonio for Tuesday's
Game 5 at the SBC Center, but if health concerns prevent him from
being with the Lakers for an extended period, he would be missed.

--Blowing a 16-point first-half lead and losing Sunday's game
without Big Chief Triangle on the opposing bench was irritating
enough to the Spurs, who should have taken a 3-1 series lead. But
the way they lost was painfully reminiscent of previous San
Antonio postseason failures. There was, for instance: two-time
MVP Tim Duncan's inability to produce against the Lakers in
crunch time (despite a game-high 36 points, he missed a key free
throw, committed a turnover and made only one field goal in the
final 2:52); a dearth of offensive options beyond Duncan (while
Duncan attempted 20 free throws, teammates Tony Parker and Manu
Ginobili were the only other Spurs to get to the line); and
faulty decision making by 21-year-old quarterback Parker (who
threw away an inbounds pass with 14.2 seconds left and the Spurs
down by three).

--Losing a coach is one thing; losing a double double mainstay,
as the Sacramento Kings did, is far more serious. Sacramento
showed much character in its 99-83 series-tying victory over the
Dallas Mavericks in Game 4 on Sunday night, achieved without
five-time All-Star Chris Webber, whose expected arthroscopic knee
surgery likely will sideline him for the rest of the postseason.
But should the Kings get by the Mavs in this track meet of a
conference semifinal (939 points were scored in the first four
games), Webber's absence will become more significant,
particularly at the defensive end.

--For fans of the retro NBA, in which fast breaks were something
that happened by design, not by accident, the Mavericks are truly
a marquee team. During last Saturday's 141-137 double-overtime
Game 3 win in Sacramento, quicksilver Dallas guard Nick Van Exel
(40 points) delivered improbable shot after improbable shot, and
theretofore buried-on-the-bench Walt Williams contributed 10 key
points in the last 10 minutes. But Sunday night's 16-point loss
to the Webber-less Kings was revelatory: an utter surrender when
Dallas should have grabbed the series by the throat. The Mavs
were the most exhilarating team in last year's first round, too,
until an inability to defend and a lack of toughness inside
doomed them. Those weaknesses persist, alongside Dallas's
we'll-just-outscore-you philosophy.

Look, the Western champion will still be the favorite when the
Finals begin in June. But isn't it interesting to discover that
this season's basic operating principle--that the Eastern
representative will prostrate itself at the feet of the Western
champion--is perhaps flawed? --Jack McCallum

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO NO FEAR The Spurs threw a lot of bodies at Kobe Bryant butcouldn't stop him from averaging 34.5 points in four gamesagainst them.

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)