Four Words Sum Up Laker Future

The words came well before the NBA Finals, and far from the television cameras. Shaquille O'Neal was standing beside the Laker bus at Arco Arena, not long after they had finished their sweep of the Sacramento Kings in the second round.

Four words, words that are pretty hard to dispute after the Lakers completed their run to the championship.

"It's all about us," O'Neal said.

To use four other words: Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant. If those two are together, playing the way they did over the last 2 1/2 months, the Lakers aren't only in the championship picture, they're front and center. Add a Derek Fisher here or a Robert Horry there knocking down three-pointers and they look unconquerable.

There will be other stories this summer. Will Michael Jordan return? Where will Chris Webber go? What moves will the San Antonio Spurs make? Will the Portland Trail Blazers shred their team?

None of them has as much bearing on the championship as the mind-set of O'Neal and Bryant.

Will O'Neal really come back "leaner and meaner," as he promised after Game 5? Will Bryant remain content to step back into the shadows when the situation demands it? Can they continue to coexist in harmony?

If the answers are "yes," then we've just seen a pretty good example of what we can expect.

O'Neal's defensive effort and concentration on free throws were considerably better in the second half of the season.

And the Lakers were much more formidable when Bryant got Shaq the ball and blended with the team concept after his return from injuries in April.

O'Neal won the league's most-valuable-player award last year and picked up his second Finals MVP award this year.

You have to think that Bryant will eventually want some hardware of his own.

Bryant happened to play his only bad game of the playoffs in the opener against the 76ers, when he missed 15 of 22 shots and committed a costly turnover in the last minute of regulation in a game the Lakers lost in overtime.

He bounced back with 31 points the next game, then scored 16 of his 32 points in the second quarter of Game 3 at Philadelphia.

But he struggled with his shot in the second half and over the next two games. He still managed to make contributions in other areas. In Game 4 he almost had a triple-double with 19 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists; Magic Johnson made a Hall of Fame career out of nights like that.

And when his shots weren't falling in Game 5, he found a way to get to the free-throw line 11 times, making 10 of them to get him to 26 points--in addition to six assists.

Bryant found a way to adjust from game to game. When 76er center Dikembe Mutombo proved to be too formidable of an obstacle on Bryant's drives to the basket in Game 1, he started pulling up to shoot from outside in Game 2.

Imagine how much he'll add to his game from year to year. Then remember that this August will bring his 23rd birthday. You can actually hear opponents whimpering.

The postseason was a perfect example of how the team and the playoffs are large enough to accommodate both O'Neal and Bryant. They took turns dominating, alternating from quarter to quarter, game to game or series to series, depending on the circumstances.

Bryant concentrated on keeping the offense flowing and had 23 assists in their three-game sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers in the opening round.

O'Neal put together back-to-back games of historic proportions in the first two nights against the Sacramento Kings, recording at least 40 points and 20 rebounds in each.

Bryant took over from Game 3 of that series and rolled on through the San Antonio series. He scored 36 points in Game 3 and 48 to finish off the Kings in Game 4. Then he opened with 45 points in Game 1 against the Spurs, which prompted O'Neal to call him his "idol".

In the Finals, O'Neal made the game's biggest stage look like his personal playground. He averaged 33 points, 15.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 3.4 blocked shots. Crazy numbers.

It might have been the last days of outright dominance for O'Neal. Next year the NBA will allow zone defenses, which could make it difficult for O'Neal to get the ball in the deep position he usually carves out for himself.

Oh well. That would simply mean more Kobe. Not a bad Plan B, is it?

Then they can get to work on Plan C: for championship parades.

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J.A. Adande can be reached at ja.adande@latimes.com.

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