The (newly) meek may inherit the NBA title

In its 54 years, the National Basketball Association has seen Magic and Michael. It has seen the wiry arms of Wilt Chamberlain drop 100 points through a hoop in a single night. It has seen the Boston Celtics of the '60s roll to 10 titles in 11 years.

But this would be something new.

Tonight, in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the Los Angeles Lakers will play for far more than the promise of a second consecutive championship. If they do what many predict, and sweep the Philadelphia 76ers in four games, they will become the first team in pro basketball to finish the playoffs without losing a game.

It would be an achievement unparalleled in American sports - and an improbable conclusion to a season in which the Lakers often seemed like basketball's version of "The Jerry Springer Show." Now, their resurgence - on the court and in the locker room - is a glimpse of what might be the first post-Jordan dynasty, as well as a parable of teamwork in the increasingly individualist NBA.

"It would certainly be a milestone in sports history," says Michael Brooslin, curator of the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

To be sure, an undefeated Laker playoff run wouldn't unseat Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in the canon of sports lore. And few would argue that it automatically would make the Lakers the best basketball team of all time.

Instead, the streak's resonance may lie in the fact that nothing like it has ever happened before. The only comparable feat in pro sports is perhaps the Miami Dolphins' undefeated pro football season in 1972.

In basketball, teams have gotten this far before, only to fail. The Lakers themselves were the last team to make it to the finals undefeated, in 1989, only to be firebombed in four straight games by the Detroit Pistons.

This time, however, there is a sense of inevitability. The Lakers of 2001 haven't just been winning, they've been turning opponents into compost. In four games against the San Antonio Spurs, who had the best regular-season record in the league, the Lakers won by an average of 22.2 points.

The last time the Lakers lost a game - regular season or playoff - was April 1.

The reason for the streak is unquestioned: humility.

For much of the season, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal - arguably the best two players in the league - acted out an NBA soap opera. Each shot one took was seemingly an affront to the other, a statement of superiority in a war for team control.

In one game, Bryant scored 51 points, only to lose and prompt accusations of selfishness. A month later, O'Neal suggested he wouldn't play defense hard if he wasn't given the ball more on offense.

It wasn't until Bryant was injured - and the team went on a four-game winning streak - that things changed. He came back determined to involve the rest of the team more, and since then, he and O'Neal have been dishing out compliments as if they were assists worth cash bonuses.

And there has been much to compliment.

In many ways, the Lakers' achievement so far is more impressive than it might have been a few decades ago. For one, the NBA added another layer of difficulty when it created a fourth round of playoffs in the 1980s. In addition, the distribution of talent is more even than it was in the 1960s and '70s, because of free agency and the growing number of quality players.

"Given the parity level among the upper teams, it's pretty amazing," says Mr. Brooslin. "Now, there are more teams with the ability to beat the top teams."

That may be so, but almost no one gives Philadelphia much of a chance to topple the Lakers. Even though the two teams finished the regular season with the same record, the differences are stark.

Los Angeles is imperial, a phalanx of skill and size anchored by O'Neal's massive bulk. Philadelphia is frenetic, a swarm of black shirts that turns its defensive zone into a hive of slaps, swats, and scraps. While the Lakers have needed the minimum number of games to get to the finals, the 76ers have needed one less than the maximum.

Yet even if the 76ers fall short in the finals, they can take solace if they at least break the Lakers' streak. After all, the current record-holder for best record in the playoffs - 12-1 - is the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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