Not much separated the Lakers and the Kings during the regular season. Los Angeles edged by Sacramento to capture the Pacific Division crown by one game. L.A. won the season series three games to one, but Sacramento averaged one point more in the four-game set: 96.0-95.0. So this semifinals series figures to be a protracted, give-and-take affair.
For the Lakers, their X factor against the Kings may end up being their role players, nearly all of whom have stepped up their games this postseason. Shaquille O'Neal
and Kobe Bryant
are scoring fewer points than they did during the regular season, yet the Lakers are scoring three-plus points per game more in the playoffs than in the regular season -- 103.7-100.6. During the regular season, the O'Neal-Bryant duo scored 56.8 percent of its team's points. Against the Trail Blazers, that percentage shrunk to slightly over 50 percent at 50.1, an indication that this postseason the Lakers are more than a two-man team.
While Bryant is averaging 25 points, down from 28.5 in the regular season, his assists are up to 7.7 from 5.0. O'Neal is averaging 27.0 points, down from 28.7, and dishing nearly three assists per game.
"Their margin for error for their supporting cast before was really small," forward Rick Fox
said of O'Neal and Bryant in the Los Angeles Daily News
. "It was almost like one missed shot, and then they felt that they had to do it themselves."
Versus Portland, Derek Fisher
(15.7-11.4) Fox (13.0-8.6) and Brian Shaw (8.0-5.3) each averaged more points than they did in the regular season. Horace Grant
(9.0-8.5) shot at a 62-percent clip versus 46 percent in the regular season, while Shaw also increased his shooting accuracy (.476-.399).
The Lakers' supporting cast made Portland pay for nearly every double-team thrown at O'Neal and Bryant. Fox shot a scorching .786 inside the three-point line. Grant (.619), Shaw (.583) and Fisher (.550) were frigid by comparison.
"This is by far the best our teammates have been playing," Bryant said succinctly.
In L.A.'s Game 3 clincher in Portland, Fox and Fisher combined for 30 points and were a perfect 10-for-10 from the free throw line. In Game 2, Fox contributed 19 points, nailing three 3-pointers. In Game 1, Fisher and Grant combined to score 35 points, connecting on 14-of-19 shots.
If O'Neal and Bryant continue to receive that kind of help, the Lakers may extend their 11-game winning streak indefinitely.
John Gardella is a member of the NBA Editorial Staff.