Best of West ready to draw

Lakers, Trail Blazers back on same plane for conference finals

May 20, 2000|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

When the NBA playoffs began last month, the Los Angeles Lakers looked like the team to beat and the Portland Trail Blazers looked like a beaten team.

When their much-anticipated Western Conference final series begins today in Los Angeles, their roles, if not their goals, have undergone slight alterations.

After being taken to the five-game limit against the Sacramento Kings in the opening round and having their egos bruised a bit in a Game4 blowout loss to the Phoenix Suns in another five-game conference semifinal, the Lakers look more vulnerable than at any point this season.

After toying with the Minnesota Timberwolves in their four-game opening-round series, then challenged but never really threatened by the Utah Jazz in their own five-game semifinal series, the Trail Blazers look more like the team that started the regular season 45-11.

It was a 90-87 victory by the Lakers in Portland on Feb. 29- the last of four meetings that the teams split - that seemed to define their respective regular seasons. Los Angeles finished with a 67-15 record. The Trail Blazers finished 59-23.

"I think Portland underachieved this year," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said earlier this week. "They had a low spell in March after we beat them up there."

Even before Game1 between the league's two best teams begins, the gamesmanship has heated up.

It started when Jackson put the onus of leading the Blazers on veteran forward Scottie Pippen, who played for Jackson on six championship teams with the Chicago Bulls.

"I personally think if Scottie doesn't lead the club and take them by the horns, they're not going to get by us," said Jackson, long familiar with Pippen's penchant for shrinking from the spotlight. "I don't know who else can lead them. I don't see another leader on that basketball team."

Truth is, Jackson's assessment is accurate. If Pippen hadn't stepped up in Game 5 against the Jazz - scoring 23 points, including the go-ahead three-pointer with7.3seconds left, to go along withnine rebounds andeight assists - the two teams might still be playing.

Jackson wasn't the only one to start playing with Portland's collective psyche, which can sometimes be fragile. Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, perhaps the most gifted player on either team, said that the Trail Blazers are more talented than he and his teammates.

"As far as athletically, everybody knows they're better than we are," Bryant said. "They have better players too. Physically we can't match up with them. They're bigger than we are. We beat teams with execution."

Bryant's assessment is true, too. It's not only the size of the Trail Blazers, it's their depth that wears down the opposition. In playing the Lakers, it was also their style that features both a wide-open offense and a terrific half-court defense.

Both Sacramento and Phoenix showed they could be successful if they got the Lakers away from the half-court game that Jackson has installed this season around Shaquille O'Neal, the league's MVP. The Lakers also learned that they can't merely show up and expect to win.

But as big and strong and deep as the Blazers are, they're not the most mentally tough team around. It doesn't take much for Rasheed Wallace to lose it, as evidenced by league-record 43technical fouls, half of the 86 the Blazers picked up this season.

In Game 4 against the Jazz, Pippen got into a verbal altercation after being shoved by Utah center Olden Polynice, then had some words for Mike Dunleavy when the Portland coach sat down him for the first 10 minutes of the fourth quarter.

To Pippen's credit, he came back after nearly being knocked senseless after crashing heads with his rather large teammate, Arvydas Sabonis. But Pippen didn't want to take the credit, saying afterward, "It wasn't just me. It was everybody."

It will be Dunleavy's job to keep his players - in particular the emotional Wallace and rising star Bonzi Wells - on track emotionally. Back in 1991, when Dunleavy was coaching the Lakers, he saw another volatile bunch of Blazers lose their focus in a 4-2 series defeat to Los Angeles and star Magic Johnson. in the Western finals.

"In that series, the one advantage our guys believed we had was maturity," Dunleavy said. "We thought we were smarter than they were. We knew that no matter what the situation was, they would let you back in the game if you stayed on course."

Sounds like the two teams entering this much-anticipated Western Conference final series. But which team? The Lakers could be the team to beat, or they could be a team on the brink of being beaten. Ditto for the Trail Blazers.

The Associated Press contributed this article.

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