Even Jordan Might Not Stop This Duo

FORT LAUDERDALE SUN-SENTINEL

Cosmic forces could be at work here. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal won their second consecutive title with the Lakers on Friday, perhaps launching the NBA's next dynasty. And Michael Jordan broke some ribs, perhaps ending his comeback bid and leaving the league to the new generation that might be able to uphold his legacy after all.

With the emergence of maturing stars such as Bryant and Allen Iverson, these playoffs have shown that the NBA can survive quite nicely without the third coming of Jordan. But you have to admit, next season would be infinitely more interesting with him.

Sure, the new guys might like the stage to themselves, but wouldn't the storyline of Jordan trying to prevent a Lakers' three-peat or trying to knock off Iverson in the East be that much better? If Jordan decides this two-month setback is an omen and sticks to a life of administrative drudgery and golf, that will leave it to the existing crop to figure out a way to stop these Lakers. Based on the quick work they made of the elite this spring, it's not going to be easy.

Three, four, four, five. That's the number of games it took the Lakers to win four playoff rounds and another title. Their 15-1 tear, capped by the 108-96 victory in Game 5 Friday, was the best in NBA playoff history.

Three, four, five. That's the number of consecutive titles O'Neal and Bryant can win together, provided they don't kill each other in the regular season first.

This, more than any mid-life Jordan comeback, appears to be the only thing capable of stopping the Lakers. Themselves. And their Hollywood egos. (And please, before discussing where this Lakers team ranks among the all-time greats, let's remember that longevity counts. That's why you can't mention them in the same breath as the 1990s Bulls or 1960s Celtics just yet).

Zen master Phil Jackson was able to solve the one-ball-two-superstars riddle this year, but in the end, it's going to be up to Bryant to decide what he wants more--unlimited titles next to Shaq or unlimited freedom and creativity on his own.

Perhaps he would be able to perform Iverson-like feats (and put up Iverson numbers) in another uniform, but the shackles can't feel all that bad when they come attached with so many rings and parades. The other day, someone asked Bryant if he ever thinks about how many titles he and O'Neal can combine to win.

"Sometimes when I go to sleep at night, I start dreaming a little bit," Bryant said. "And all that seems well right now. And we're happy to be winning until next January, when people start talking about trading one of us."

He smiled.

Is Shaq in your dreams, someone asked. "He's too big," Bryant said. "Don't fit."

But they do fit, perfect complementary pieces if the object is winning championships, not scoring titles or regular-season MVP awards.

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