Who's going to be good enough to stop the Los Angeles Lakers and Shaquille O'Neal in the playoffs?
They haven't been challenged yet and they're running out of opponents. Now, they've advanced to their first Western Conference final since 1991 - for the first time since Magic Johnson retired.The Lakers, getting 31 points, nine rebounds and eight blocked shots from O'Neal, finished their rout of the Seattle SuperSonics with a 110-95 victory Tuesday night.
"They're playing really well," the Sonics' Gary Payton said. "Their confidence is really up."
"I don't think I've been in a series where I've been so dominated with a good basketball team," Seattle coach George Karl said. "Mentally, I think we've awakened a great basketball team."
The Lakers, who won 22 of their last 25 regular-season games and beat Portland 3-1 in the opening round of the playoffs, lost the first game of the best-of-7 series to the Sonics, then won four straight.
"I don know if the average fan realizes how well we had to play to win four straight games against the Sonics," Los Angeles coach Del Harris said.
"I think they really got rolling in this series," Seattle's Vin Baker added. "I think they really played up to their potential."
The Lakers advanced to the conference finals against Utah, which beat San Antonio 87-77 Tuesday night to win the other semifinal in five games. The series starts Saturday in Salt Lake City.
The Lakers took three out of four from the Jazz during the regular season. But the Jazz finished with a better regular-season record, 62-20 to 61-21.
The Lakers didn't want to talk about Karl Malone and John Stockton after finishing off Seattle.
"I'm going to get some sleep, play some golf tomorrow and not really think about Utah until I have to," Nick Van Exel said.
Tuesday was a painful night for the Sonics, whose coach, Karl, isn't expected back next season. Karl's contract expires on July 1 and he probably won't be offered a new one, despite his regular-season winning percentage of .719.
"I don't think that's a good question for me," Karl said when asked if he would coach the Sonics next season. "I don't have that answer. That's a question for other people."
Sonics president and general Wally Walker refused to shed any light on Karl's future in Seattle. It will be discussed between himself and owner Barry Ackerley.
"It'll depend on our evaluation," Walker said.
Eddie Jones and Rick Fox each had 17 points for the Lakers, while Van Exel had 15. L.A. set a franchise playoff record with 13 3-pointers, five by Fox.
Baker led Seattle with a playoff career-high 28 points.
The Lakers shot 56.3 percent (36-for-64) in beating Seattle, a team that had a 3-1 edge on them during the regular season, for the second straight time in the KeyArena.
After the Sonics won the series opener, they didn't have a chance against the Lakers and the 7-foot-1, 315-pound O'Neal. He averaged 30.6 points, shot 63 percent from the floor and averaged 9.6 rebounds, while blocking 20 shots. He even shot 60 percent from the free-throw line.
"Us coaches were talking about Shaq," Karl said. "(Assistant coach) Bob Weiss played against Wilt Chamberlain. He thinks Shaq is better than Wilt, and I agree with him."
Said O'Neal: "My guys took great shots tonight and we mixed up our game well."
In the fourth quarter, the Sonics got within 98-91 after Detlef Schrempf scored on a hook shot with 5:15 to go.
But O'Neal responded with a layup, and Jones made three free throws to put the Lakers ahead 103-91. And it was all over for the Sonics.