The Lakers might choke!

Yeah, right. They're not the Kings, you know. As long as Shaquille O'Neal's playing, the Nets are in a world of hurt in the NBA Finals.

By King Kaufman
Published June 5, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Boy, did the Sacramento Kings pull a choke-a-roo for the ages against the Los Angeles Lakers or what? Sixteen of 30 from the line in Game 7? Are you kidding me? Never mind the bricks tossed up by Peja Stojakovic and Doug Christie in the waning moments, or Chris Webber failing to take charge offensively down the stretch. If the Kings had just upgraded their foul shooting from execrable to lousy, they'd have won in regulation.

Two more lingering thoughts from that Western Conference final series, which deserves a little extra attention because it was after all the real NBA Finals.

First, what's up with Mateen Cleaves? He gave an impassioned pep talk in the huddle before the fourth quarter of Game 7. "This is it right here!" he yelled to his Kings mates. "We came too far. We came too far, fellas, we've gotta lay it all on the line!"

Here's a second-year man who played 153 out of a possible 3,951 minutes during the season and has not removed his warm-ups in the playoffs -- he could have bright green happy faces painted on his knees and we wouldn't know it! -- and he gives the big speech in the huddle at crunch time. I can't figure out if he's got the stones of a giant or he's just a wacko but I think I love the guy. Were his teammates inspired, or were they thinking, "Who's this 'we' you're talking about, scrub?" I would think the former, though they didn't play like it.

Second, it looked like a good trade last off-season when the Kings sent sometimes spectacular but erratic point guard Jason Williams to the Grizzlies for the much steadier Mike Bibby, but who knew just how good a trade it was? The Kings are a team whose big star, Webber, is just never going to be one of those gimme-the-ball leaders with the game on the line. Bibby -- who knew? -- gives them that. He also gives them a reliable way to run the offense, which is at its most effective when it's going to, not through Webber. When he's reacting to a play that's in motion, scripted or not, Webber is nearly unstoppable. When he sets up with the ball in the high post and looks to start the play, the Kings' offense stalls.

But enough about the Kings, who were only the best team in the NBA this year, which is a very different thing from winning the championship, which is much better. The Lakers are going to win the championship by beating the New Jersey Nets in the Finals.

Anything can happen, of course. The Lakers could choke too. They're not going to, but they could. That's why they line 'em up and play 'em, the saying goes. Actually, that's not why they line 'em up and play 'em, but never mind. One thing about the Lakers: They know how to win. They might lose, but they don't choke. But sports lore is filled with upsets, so yes, the Nets juuuuuuust might beat the Lakers. Yes indeed. With me as their leading scorer. And Winona Ryder and Julia Roberts providing steals and rebounds off the bench.

You can analyze matchups until you're blue in the face and it wouldn't matter. It all comes down to Shaquille O'Neal. The Nets don't have anybody who can score on him or anybody who can guard him, and unlike the Kings, they don't have enough talent to overcome him.

So what if Kenyon Martin is a better power forward than Robert Horry, or the Nets' bench is a shade better than the Lakers' bench, which maybe it is and maybe it isn't? If you put all of the guys from both rosters on a playground, with you and me as team captains, whoever got first pick would win, because the first pick is O'Neal. You want Jason Kidd? Sure, I'll take Kobe Bryant. You want Bryant? Fine, I'll take Kidd. Tell you what: You can have Horry and Martin. I'll even take Stanislav Medvedenko. As long as I have Shaq, my team wins.

Nets fans are taking great comfort in the fact that their club split its two games with the Lakers this year, with each team winning its home game. What they don't mention is that at the Meadowlands in April, O'Neal didn't play because of an injury and the Nets still had to rally furiously to win. When the Lakers beat the Nets a month earlier in Los Angeles, Bryant was serving a suspension for fighting. O'Neal scored 40 points.

So the prediction here is Lakers in ... six. You heard me. Six.

The Lakers aren't quite the team they've been the last two years, when they won back-to-back titles. The guys who used to be a pretty good bench are now only a decent starting lineup, beyond the two megastars, and the new bench -- Lindsey Hunter, Devean George and Samaki Walker, mostly -- isn't much to get excited about. The Lakers are still a good defensive team, but it's not the stifling defense of the last two years.

Still, they're good enough to blow away the Nets. But I figure Kidd's brilliance will get New Jersey one win over the course of any series, and the Lakers sometimes have a little attention-deficit problem when they're not being challenged -- witness the Finals against Indiana two years ago. That'll account for another Nets win, though it'll probably be in Game 5, with the Lakers already up 3-1.

Besides, it would be boring to predict a sweep, and I've already said the Stanley Cup Finals would go five games. And since my predictions are always wrong anyway, why not six?

Kidd will get a chance to showcase his game on a national stage, the way Bibby did in the semifinals, the way Allen Iverson did in the 76ers' loss in last year's Finals. And Kidd vs. Bryant should be a show worth watching.

But no matter how good Kidd is -- and, oh, he's way good -- it won't be good enough, unless O'Neal gets hurt so badly that he can't play, which would have to be pretty badly. If that happens, we'll talk again.

In the meantime, a word about the heckling Kidd and his wife and son took in the last round at the hands of Boston fans, who taunted him as a wife beater. By all accounts, Kidd has been a stand-up guy since Joumana Kidd's domestic violence complaint of last year. He paid a fine, underwent anger counseling (the charges were dropped as a result) and has been as forthright with the public about it as anybody could expect. And yeah, drunken fans shouldn't be heckling a player's wife and, especially, 3-year-old kid. Kidd's anger at the Boston yahoos was justified.

On the other hand, yahoos will be yahoos, and Kidd's no innocent victim. Let's not forget he has only himself to blame. An effective way to keep from being heckled as a wife beater is not to beat your wife up in the first place.

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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