BILL PLASCHKE

Lakers begin playoffs with a '1996' vibe, and that could be bad

Seventeen years ago, a dysfunctional Lakers team lost in first round. Then they got Shaq and Kobe, building a championship foundation. Now they're at crossroads again.

The last time they tried this, it didn't go so well.

The last time the Lakers attempted to win a playoff series without Kobe Bryant, they had home-court advantage, a future Hall of Famer, and absolutely no chance.

The year was 1996, and after lurching through the regular season into a first-round, best-of-five series against the Houston Rockets, the unsteady Lakers collapsed into a dysfunctional heap.

After they played one of their worst games of the season in losing the series opener at the Forum, Magic Johnson, in his brief foray between retirements, challenged coach Del Harris.

"In the first half, he didn't want me to post at all . . . in the second half he said, 'OK, now post,'" Johnson said in a postgame interview. "Now . . . wait a minute!"

After they tied the series in Game 2, they watched the Rockets go on a 13-0 fourth-quarter run that beat them in Game 3. Afterward, when asked how to stop Rockets star Hakeem Olajuwon, the Lakers had but one answer.

"Poison the Dream's food," Cedric Ceballos said.

That he was still one of the team's spokesmen spoke volumes about the team. A month earlier, Ceballos had walked off the court and disappeared for five days, during which time he was spotted at the London Bridge Resort in Lake Havasu.

"Ceballos Up Creek Without a Paddle," read the L.A. Times headline.

Before Game 4, the locker room reeked with so much selfishness, Johnson questioned the players' heart.

"Are you really for the team, or is that just something that comes out of your mouth?" he said.

Harris was so embattled by second-guessing, he questioned their agendas.

"We've got a lot of coaches on this team, don't we?" he said.

After they were mercifully eliminated in Game 4, for once the legendary Nick Van Exel didn't question anything. He walked to the team bus, pulled out his luggage, told the Lakers he would find his own ride back to Los Angeles, and handed his monetary playoff share to rookie Frankie King.

"A fractured team?" wrote the Times' Scott Howard-Cooper.

Fast-forward 17 years, to Sunday, when the Lakers once again will attempt to tackle the season's biggest moments without a big-moment guy.

They are not fractured. But they quickly could be. They are not up a creek without a paddle. But the ride could be short and bumpy.

That 1996 debacle was compelling not only in its causes, but its effects. This was the playoff series that spurred the changes that led directly to the beginning of a new Lakers championship era. That summer, Johnson retired for the final time, Bryant was acquired, Shaquille O'Neal was signed and the rest, as they say, is histrionics.

Depending on the outcome of this postseason, which begins Sunday afternoon in San Antonio against the heavily favored Spurs, the same sort of changes could happen again. Perhaps never has there been a Lakers spring featuring so many questions, with answers steeped in so many ramifications.

"It's been a real roller-coaster ride," Steve Blake said. "We're looking forward to seeing what happens with the rest of it."

CHICAGO

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