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Lakers in Neutral as Playoffs Shift Gears

With Jerry Buss about to leave for six weeks in Europe and a relaxed pace of negotiations with Phil Jackson, it looks as if we can pull our staff off full alert.

At the pace they’re going, seeing as how they’ve already met twice without discussing the coaching job, even if the Lakers do hire Jackson, it might not be before next summer.

Buss says he can do this over the phone, but with an 11-hour time difference between Los Angeles and Italy, it might be even harder for them to hook up when they’re on separate continents, as opposed to the same town.

Buss: Hello, Phil?

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Answering machine: I’m not here now in fact or in spirit, one or the other. Please leave your number and I’ll commune with you when my journey ends.

Buss: Hi, Phil! This is Jerry. I’ll be at the casino from midnight to however long it takes them or me to run out of money, say about noon tomorrow. That’s what, California time? Oh yeah, 1 a.m. Or I’ll give you a ring in a couple of days.

Meanwhile, back in the playoffs, I’m checking out the Suns-Mavericks series. Let’s face it, it’s just not the way it was when the Lakers were part of the deal.

The NBA doesn’t have baseball’s lore, its myth-making ability or its institutionalized media following. When an NBA team is out of it, the light bulb starts blinking in that city.

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This is a major problem for the league, which has also been dark in the big cities of New York, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Washington and San Francisco more often than not in recent years.

That being the case, it’s remarkable the playoffs are matching last spring’s ratings on cable, and not surprising they’re off 33% on ABC, which specialized in marquee matchups, or in other words, the (sob) Lakers.

Of course, if the big cities don’t come back, there’s always technology. Commissioner

David Stern, who sometimes sounds as if he’s just back from conferring with aliens in outer space, told USA Today of exciting new developments, like “sensors, dust-like particles,” noting, “I’m not sure where we’d sprinkle them. But imagine if a sensor, the weight of a penny and sewn into uniforms, could transmit broadcast quality images wirelessly?”

Of what? A player’s navel?

What is this, nanotechnology or pixie dust? I thought that Fox camera on catchers’ masks was bad enough. Why don’t these people just come out and say it: Our game is so dull, we have to stand on our heads and turn our cameras upside down to make it look interesting!

Actually, the playoffs are getting good, although, to be perfectly honest, they had to order me to go. It’s much better on TV. Friday night I was about 50 rows behind the basket, behind two Maverick fans brandishing those inflatable noise sticks. One was a girl who held up a sign: “Single Female Wants to Meet Sexy German,” presumably Dirk Nowitzki.

Happily, their team lost, although I had to call home and ask my wife, who watched on TV, about the precise details. Then I had to try to make sense of it on deadline, because TNT had moved the start back to 8:45 p.m. Central time. They obviously did this for more exposure, hoping people in the East don’t mind 9:45 starts and are so excited about this series, they’ll stay up to 12:15 a.m. EDT, when it ended.

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It really was a good game, though. This isn’t (thank heaven) the basketball we used to know. So far in this series, the Suns are averaging 117 points, the Mavericks 104, and they may just be warming up.

Several themes are beginning to emerge in this postseason, assuming my wife got it right:

* The Suns have problems.

With all that firepower, they were paper thin before Joe Johnson, their 6-foot-8, 240-pound do-everything guard, went out and he’s done for the series, if not the postseason.

The Suns may get past the Mavericks with efforts like Friday’s, when all five starters went 40 minutes and scored 114 of their 119 points. However, that great matchup with the Spurs that seemed to loom in the West finals wouldn’t be what it might have been.

This would be a shame because the Suns are the best thing to happen to the game since Shaquille O’Neal met Kobe Bryant. My new favorite player is Amare Stoudemire, who’s even more exciting than Manu Ginobili. Here’s hoping the Suns get out of the second round and Johnson makes it back.

* In another entertaining development, Maverick Coach Avery Johnson is melting down nightly. This franchise (read: Mark Cuban) has an obsession with the referees, eclipsing the real problems.

With the 6-11 Nowitzki crowded by smaller, quicker players like Tracy McGrady and Shawn Marion, he’s trying to take them inside, but that’s not his game. His regular-season numbers of 26 points and 46% are down to 22 and 38% in the playoffs.

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On the other hand, the Mavericks had the kid who played Napoleon Dynamite dancing in a “Vote for Dirk” T-shirt. They may not be the best, but they’re the hippest.

* The Spurs should dust off the SuperSonics, although by writing that, I just guaranteed it’ll go seven.

Tim Duncan, a question mark, is OK, averaging 22.5 points in the playoffs, which is good enough with Ginobili averaging 21 and Tony Parker averaging 20. They won titles in 1999 and 2003 without anything like that going.

Duncan just turned 29, Ginobili is about to turn 28, Parker is about to turn 23 and they don’t have ego issues. If there’s a dynasty around, this is it.

* In the East, Miami is on cruise control, outclassing everyone so badly, O’Neal can take games off.

The bad news for the Heat is, O’Neal suffered his thigh bruise three weeks ago and it hasn’t healed yet.

His numbers are down (18 points, 8.2 rebounds) and he was dragging his leg in Game 2 against Washington before sitting out Game 3.

He was so embarrassed, he stopped talking to the media. His wife, Shaunie, told his biographer, the Washington Post’s Mike Wise, “I’ve gotten to the point where I just laugh. I mean, we’re talking about the world’s biggest drama king.”

O’Neal should get a long rest between series. The problem, now as when he was a Laker, is the more O’Neal hurts, the less he can practice, the more out of shape he gets.

Next thing you know, Ben Wallace, who’s 6-7 plus the hair, is guarding him straight-up and the Pistons are beating the Lakers in five. The Pistons would pose a similar problem for the Heat in the East finals, assuming they get there.

* Right now, the Pistons have their hands full with the Pacers, who got Jermaine O’Neal back in December, Stephen Jackson back in January, Jamal Tinsley back in Game 5 of the Boston series and won’t get Ron Artest back at all. Nevertheless, it’s Reggie Miller’s last stand and the stalwart Detroit guards, Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups, shot 22 for 61 in the last two games.

The temperature is rising again with Detroit’s Larry Brown and Indiana’s Rick Carlisle debating (what else) the refereeing. Brown is usually above that, preferring to rip his players.

However, when Brown did it after Game 3, Carlisle, who usually has the emotional range of a mummy, went bonkers, his voice rising as he replied, “I don’t want to hear it. Not with the season we’ve had. Not with what we’ve had to fight through. Forget it! FORGET IT!”

Who needs pixie dust? If you have a TV and you live on the West Coast, where there are no late starts, it’s great the way it is.

*

Faces and Figures

The hits just keep happening. The Laker hope of signing a big free agent in 2007 isn’t looking good with Yao Ming pledging to return to Houston and the Rockets pledging to offer him a long-term contract. “I really like here,” Yao said. “If there’s a contract, I would like to sign.” ... The Lakers will wait until this summer’s window, from Aug. 1 to Oct. 30, to see if Yao and Stoudemire actually re-sign. If they do -- as expected -- well, there’s always 2008.... Seattle’s Ray Allen accused San Antonio’s Bruce Bowen of playing “sissy basketball” by crowding him and then flopping, as Bowen held him to 18 points a game and 36% from the floor in the first three games. Coincidentally, they have the same agent, Lon Babby of the Washington-based law firm Williams & Connolly. Said Babby: “Let’s just say I won’t be seating them side by side at the Williams & Connolly barbecue.”

It’s all over now but the disrespect: Chicago GM John Paxson, upset that Scott Skiles finished fourth in voting for coach of the year: “I don’t know how he can’t be coach of the year.” Maybe it was because the Suns’ Mike D’Antoni dared to play the smallest team the NBA has seen since the 1940s and won 62 games to the Bulls’ 47? ... Skiles, who’s even more acerbic than Paxson, is a little put out that only two Bulls, Ben Gordon and Luol Deng, made the all-rookie team, leaving Andres Nocioni and Chris Duhon off. “I’m not really happy about it, but I suppose I understand it,” Skiles said. “My players deserved it, but at the same time, how many players from the same team can you have?” ... OK, who should Nocioni and Duhon replace, Emeka Okafor, Dwight Howard or Andre Igoudala?

With dueling statements -- the league suggesting Houston Coach Jeff Van Gundy lied and Van Gundy noting he said it was an “NBA official,” rather than a referee, who warned him about a change in approach -- the episode was concluded. Stern had a legitimate concern but overreacted, blowing it up from a note to an issue by fining Van Gundy $100,000 and suggesting he might ban him, too.... Said Stern, obviously tired of the issue he created: “The Affair Van Gundy is closed. Praise the Lord. He apologized. He accepted the fine and acknowledged the statement that he got a call from an NBA referee was, shall I say, in error, inaccurate. That makes it over.” ... A review of the tape by the Houston Chronicle’s Jon Feigen showed Van Gundy never said “referee,” and when a questioner said it, Van Gundy told him, “Just put ‘official.’ ... Said Van Gundy, who is one of the league’s smartest people when not involved in trying to gain an edge: “You don’t get do-overs in this position. You walk out and you speak and sometimes when you see what you said or see what you do, running out on the court tackling somebody, you just hope your career is viewed in its totality, not in little four or five seconds [of] temporary insanity.”


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