PORTLAND, Ore. - Few expected the Western Conference finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers to be a short series, given the competitiveness of their regular-season confrontations and their status as the two best teams in the NBA.
The chance of it lasting just five games seemed as remote as, well, the crazy notion of Shaquille O'Neal making nine straight free throws. Given what transpired yesterday in a thoroughly convincing 103-91 victory for the Lakers, this series will likely end tomorrow night in Los Angeles.
And the Trail Blazers now have someone to blame other than the officials, as they did after losing Game 3. They can now wag their fingers at O'Neal's daughter, Taahirah, for putting them in their three-games-to-one predicament by giving her famous father the kind of tip many well-paid shooting gurus have done without much success in the past.
"There's a funny story about that," said O'Neal, who has now made 12 straight dating to Game 3. "I called my daughter. She's 3 years old and really doesn't know the game. I said, `Daddy loves you' and she answered, `Good luck and bend your knees.' So the game was for her."
O'Neal's free-throw binge, part of a 25-point, 11-rebound performance for the league's MVP, certainly put a major crimp in Portland's plan of turning the fourth quarter into another hour-long "hack-a-Shaq," as happened in Game 1. The Trail Blazers attempted it once, and meekly succumbed as O'Neal made both attempts.
Portland went as far as trying later to ice O'Neal with a timeout after another free throw, but he calmly came back to sink the other, running back downcourt with a smirk on his face. As a team, the Lakers made 31 of 34 overall, including 16 straight in one stretch. O'Neal wasn't the only one to smirk.
"I took Shaq out after he went 9-for-9 at the free throw line," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson. "I had to take him out to keep his stat sheet [perfect] and told him he should put it on the wall. Today was the day when we were focused at the line. I've always said free-throw shooting was infectious. If you shoot well others will follow."
Asked what he thought of Portland's decision to intentionally send O'Neal to the line -it came a bit late, considering the Lakers were leading 87-77 with 5:53 remaining in the game -Jackson said, `The defensive strategy to foul Shaquille really backfired on them."
It was, in retrospect, the act of a desperate coach, Mike Dunleavy, and a team that had blown an early double-digit lead for the second straight game. This time, the Trail Blazers had jumped out to leads of 10-2 and 16-6 and were still up nine at the end of the first quarter, 25-16, despite missing a handful of layups.
And, for the second straight game, the Trail Blazers were undone when they played woefully and the Lakers wonderfully in the third quarter. Los Angeles turned a 47-42 halftime deficit into a 76-66 third-quarter lead by making 14 of 20 shots with the help of 10 assists. Conversely, Portland was five of 17 in the quarter.
"I thought we played an excellent first half, but we shot ourselves in the foot when we missed five or six open layups," said Dunleavy, whose record in the conference finals since coming to Portland is now 1-7 overall and 0-4 at home. "The second-chance opportunities that we gave them really cost us."
Another of Dunleavy's strategies is backfiring as well. His decision to leave veteran guard Ron Harper virtually unguarded because Scottie Pippen has had to help out double-teaming O'Neal is hurting the Trail Blazers. After hitting a wide-open baseline jumper to win Game 3, Harper made six of 12 shots yesterday to finish with 18 points.
"He's been getting open shots and he has been able to take advantage of them and get to the offensive boards," said Pippen. "He knows he is able to freelance and do some things out there. I still feel good with the fact that we have to live with Ron Harper beating us with his shots. I think we have done a good job to not let Shaq and Kobe [Bryant] dominate."
Bryant overcame rough start, when he missed eight of his first 10 shots, to also score 18. Celebrating his 33rd irthday, Glen Rice finally contributed to his team's cause with 21 points on 7-of-11 shooting. Rasheed Wallace led the Trail Blazers with a career-playoff highs of 34 points and 13 rebounds.
As for Pippen, he had another lackluster game offensively, finishing with 11 points. Expected to be the player to lead the Trail Blazers to their first NBA Finals since 1992, Pippen admitted yesterday that he was distracted by some first-half foul trouble that also resulted in him being called for a technical foul.
"I don't think I was very aggressive today," said Pippen, who scored only four points and had just two of his 10 rebounds in the second half. "It was the foul trouble that put me back on my heels and took the aggressiveness out of me. I knew if I got another foul, I couldn't be aggressive at all."
The Trail Blazers can take some solace in the fact that they beat the Lakers at the Staples Center by 29 points a week ago in Game 2, as well as during the regular season. But that confidence might be tempered a bit in the way this series has turned here, and in knowing that the Lakers have yet to lose two straight at home this season.
"The only thing we have to draw on is that we have the ability," said Dunleavy. "It's not unchartered territory for us to go down to LA and get a win. That's the main thing right now. Our focus has to be on playing one game ... You are going to play one game, and get your chance and try to bring it back here."
What's the chance of Portland extending the series for Game 6 on riday night?
About as good as O'Neal making another nine in a row from the line.