LOS ANGELES – This might be a tough encore for the Los Angeles Lakers.
After winning one of the most riveting series in playoff history, they still need four wins over the New Jersey Nets to earn their third straight title and a spot in the record books for their coach.
But if ever the NBA Finals could possibly be considered an afterthought, it’s now.
After all, the Lakers are 9-1 favorites over the upstart Nets after beating the Sacramento Kings in a series many believe determined the championship.
One problem could be a letdown, at least early in the best-of-seven series. The Lakers were indeed tested by the Kings in the Western Conference finals and were left with little time to gear up for the Nets.
“Deep, deeper than we’ve ever dug before,” Derek Fisher said after his team’s 112-106 overtime victory in Game 7 at Sacramento.
“I would say that it was grueling,” Shaquille O’Neal said.
The Lakers, who took Monday off to rest, were to practice Tuesday in nearby El Segundo.
Game 1 is Wednesday night at Staples Center. Game 2 also will be in Los Angeles on Friday before the series shifts to New Jersey for Games 3, 4 and, if necessary, 5.
The Lakers are making their 21st appearance in the NBA Finals and will be shooting for their 14th championship, including five in Minneapolis before moving to Los Angeles in 1960.
The Nets, in the playoffs for the first time since 1998, will be playing in the finals for the first time. Their 10 playoff wins this spring are one more than their total since joining the NBA in 1976.
“They have a nice little team,” Robert Horry said.
“They play with a lot of emotion, they play with a lot of moxie,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “We felt confident that the winner of this conference would win the series and we still believe it.”
Confidence is never a problem for the Lakers. Even when they trailed the Kings 3-2 they were upbeat — from Jackson to the end of the bench.
The Lakers’ fans even include some Nets.
“I was rooting for the Lakers to pull it out because I wanted to go home and play them,” said Lucious Harris, who grew up in Los Angeles and attended Long Beach State. “It’s unbelievable to be going home and playing the champions.”
Keith Van Horn, from nearby Diamond Bar, spent his childhood rooting for the Lakers.
“First we beat Boston in Boston, now I’m going home to play LA in the NBA Finals,” he said. “I couldn’t have scripted it better.”
The Lakers have appeared vulnerable at times during the playoffs, but now they are playing their best basketball of the postseason.
“We still have the heart of a champion,” forward Rick Fox said.
One of the main reasons the Lakers beat the Kings was O’Neal’s ability to ignore the pain from his arthritic right big toe and produce dominating efforts in Games 6 and 7.
He had 41 points and 17 rebounds Friday night in a 106-102 victory and 35 points and 13 rebounds less than 48 hours later in Game 7.
And he made free throws: 13-of-17 and 11-of-15 in the last two games. That’s 24-of-32 and 75 percent — far above his typical output.
“Over the last couple of years now, when I’ve needed to hit them, I’ve hit them,” he said.
Jackson has won a record 23 straight playoff series. If he makes it 24, he will have nine championships as a coach to tie Red Auerbach’s record and 156 postseason victories, one more than leader Pat Riley.
New Jersey’s Byron Scott, meanwhile, is in his second year as an NBA head coach — both with the Nets, who were 26-56 in his first season.
Scott played 11 of his 14 NBA seasons with the Lakers and was a starter on three of their five championship teams in the 1980s.
“It’s one of the greatest organizations in all of sports,” he said. “I loved being there, playing there and now going back there as a coach.
“I love this challenge. I’m going back to LA to coach in the NBA Finals. It’s a dream come true for me.”