INDIANAPOLIS -- NBA Commissioner David Stern has waited to get his hands on a team like the Los Angeles Lakers.
Two years, to be exact. Stern sent out the search party the moment Michael Jordan stroked the title-clinching shot for the Chicago Bulls in the 1998 Finals. It looked hopeless.
The Bulls won six titles in the 1990s. The Houston Rockets are the only other team to win two or more titles in the last decade.
The Lakers stumbled last night in their attempt to win the franchise's first title since 1988. Indiana forced L.A. to keep the champagne on ice for at least one more game, trouncing the Lakers 120-87 in Conseco Fieldhouse.
L.A. leads the best-of-seven series 3-2. Game 6 is Monday night in the Staples Center.
"Hopefully, if we can get this victory, this will be the start of something,'' Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal said. Something big.
The Lakers entered the playoffs favored to win it all. Get used to it.
Dynasties aren't built upon one championship. But the first title provides a foundation for the future. Stern and the NBA's crack marketing team can get ready to mold the Lakers in the image of other former multi-champions such as the Bulls, Rockets, Detroit Pistons, Boston Celtics and the Lakers of the '80s. Ah, the future.
Let's start with O'Neal. He is unquestionably the most awesome physical specimen since Wilt Chamberlain. He can play a little, too.
O'Neal is the only center of the last two decades who has been compared offensively to Chamberlain and defensively to Bill Russell.. He was voted MVP of the regular season and was averaging 38 points and 19.2 rebounds in the finals entering last night.
O'Neal is 28 and just approaching his prime. He's signed through 2003. Scary.
Then there's Kobe Bryant, who grabs control of the biggest games during the most critical moments. He scored eight points in overtime in the Lakers' 120-118 victory in Game 4, taking over the contest after O'Neal fouled out.
Bryant is 21. The prime of his career is a few years away. By then, he'll be ready for a new contract. Bryant is signed through 2005. Real scary.
O'Neal and Bryant can carry the Lakers for a long time, following the successful blueprint featuring Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago. You can build around two great players who dominate their positions.
"Every team has a one-two punch and for this team, Kobe and myself, we are the one-two punch,'' O'Neal said. "On any night any one of us can take over.''
On other nights - last night, for example - the Lakers exasperate their coach, Phil Jackson, who was hired specifically because of his success with Chicago.
Jackson's credibility as a winner convinced the Lakers they were legends in their own minds only.
The Lakers still don't know how to close out a series. In each of the previous three playoff rounds, L.A failed to win the deciding game on the opponent's homecourt.
LA led Portland 3-1 in the Western Conference finals but didn't drop the hammer until it was almost too late. The Lakers rallied from 15 points down in the fourth quarter to win Game 7.
"It's a mystery to me,'' Lakers coach Jackson said. "You can talk about it, it's just difficult to do. We played a little bit too loose, a little bit too soft.'' Lack of a killer insticnt is the only thing separating the NBA's team of the future from greatness.
Indiana coach Larry Bird said the Lakers will be a different team in Los Angeles.
"I just think they're waiting to get home,'' Bird said of the Lakers. "They're up 3-2, with two games at home. They've still got the upper hand.''
John Harris is a Blade sports columnist.
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