The television in the Los Angeles Lakers' locker room on Sunday was tuned to the Portland Trail Blazers' attempt to complete a playoff sweep of the Utah Jazz. However, judging from the way the Lakers averted their eyes from the screen, you might have thought it was beaming a solar eclipse directly into the room. Though they held a 3-0 lead in their own Western Conference semifinal series, against the Phoenix Suns, and seemed certain to meet Portland in the conference finals, the Lakers didn't want their attention to wander prematurely toward the Pacific Northwest. "We've got business to take care of against Phoenix," forward Glen Rice said before Game 4 at America West Arena. "Then we'll see about Portland or whoever might be up next."
Even though no NBA team has lost a best-of-seven series after winning the first three games, the Lakers were being cautious. And sure enough, the Suns defeated them 117-98 a few hours later, prompting Phoenix center Luc Longley to say, "Maybe we can make history." And maybe Suns point guard Jason Kidd is a natural blond.
Although the Blazers also lost on Sunday, series victories by Portland and Los Angeles had already been deemed inevitable by just about everyone but the participants. With all due respect to the survivors of the unsightly New York- Miami and Indiana- Philadelphia series in the East, a Lakers-Blazers confrontation shapes up as the de facto Finals, a pairing of the teams with the two best regular-season records in the league. The Lakers, at 67-15, were eight games better than Portland, but if the Blazers have been sneaking a peek at the Lakers' playoff games, they have no doubt discovered that Los Angeles doesn't seem quite as formidable as it did when the postseason began.
Like all dominant teams, the Lakers tend to believe that their rare losses have little to do with the opponent. "It doesn't really matter that much what other teams do," Shaquille O'Neal said after L.A's 105-99 win over Phoenix in Game 3. "When we don't win, it's not because somebody has stopped us; it's because we stopped ourselves." But even in their playoff success through Sunday the Lakers had displayed signs of vulnerability, the most obvious being their 1-3 record on the road. Both the Suns and the Sacramento Kings, who pushed Los Angeles to a deciding fifth game in the first round, demonstrated that teams with an effective fast break and the ability to attack the Lakers' weakness at power forward—36-year-old A.C. Green is showing his age, and 6'10", 235-pound Robert Horry is playing out of position-have a chance. While the Kings didn't have the playoff experience or defensive skills to finish the job, and the Suns don't have enough inside strength to keep O'Neal from owning the paint, the Blazers are better equipped in all those areas. "I'm quite sure teams look at what Sacramento and Phoenix have done and say, This is how you give yourself a chance against the Lakers," Rice said after Game 4. "I can see how teams might have a little more confidence against us than they did before."
If the Blazers, who split four regular-season meetings with the Lakers, are to engineer an upset, the first step—and almost every step thereafter—will have to be quick. Guard Kobe Bryant is the only member of the Lakers' starting lineup who is as effective at an accelerated pace as he is in a half-court game. On offense the Lakers like to set up their triangle and use O'Neal to bludgeon their opposition. On defense they have become such a tenacious half-court team that they held opponents to 41.6% field goal accuracy during the regular season, best in the league. The Suns were successful when they had Kidd leading the break, with guard Penny Hardaway and forward Shawn Marion filling the lanes and forwards Cliff Robinson and Rodney Rogers spotting up for jump shots before LA's defense was set. "We'd try to get back on defense, but they were running right up our backs," Rice said after Game 4. The Blazers aren't quite the running team that the Kings and the Suns are, but with point guard Damon Stoudamire and athletic forwards such as Scottie Pippen and Rasheed Wallace, they can push the ball.
Even if Portland gets its share of points in transition, the Blazers will have to find a way to deal with the 7'1", 325-pound O'Neal. They won't find one; no team has. Even after being "held" to 24 points and nine rebounds on Sunday, O'Neal was still the leading scorer (31-4 points) and re-bounder (16.3) in the playoffs. The Blazers have one of the few centers in the league who comes close to matching Shaq's remarkable physical dimensions, 7'3", 292-pound Arvydas Sabonis, but during his five years in the league Sabonis has been strangely passive against O'Neal, leading to suspicions that he's intimidated by Shaq. More than anything, Portland will need Sabonis to at least stay on the floor; he committed five fouls in three of the four games against L.A. this season, including a Dec. 3 disaster in which foul trouble limited him to 17 minutes and two points in a 93-80 loss.
Sabonis's play is crucial—you might even say he is pivotal—because the Blazers need his outside shooting to draw O'Neal from the basket. One of the established plans of attack against Shaq is to make him expend a great deal of energy on defense by running screen-and-rolls with the man he's guarding. Portland will no doubt try that, hoping to force O'Neal to come out on the perimeter and defend the play. This strategy worked better in past years, when O'Neal wasn't as well-conditioned as he is this season, but the combination of working hard on defense and facing double and triple teams on offense has still worn him down on occasion.
Portland will have to dominate the power forward matchup almost as decisively as Los Angeles will win the battle at center. Green's presence in the starting lineup is mostly ceremonial; Horry has been logging most of the minutes at the position lately. Horry is a streaky player—he was a major factor one game [as when he scored 15 points off the bench in Game 3 against Phoenix) and a non-factor the next (as when he missed all four of his shots and scored three points on Sunday). But it is consistent defense that he must supply against Wallace, the Blazers' most dangerous player. If Horry limits Wallace to the 17.0 points he averaged against the Lakers in the regular season, Los Angeles will be headed to the officially recognized Finals.
Bryant, the Lakers' best one-on-one defender and most creative scorer, is the Los Angeles wild card. Coach Phil Jackson can use him to guard Stoudamire, who was Portland's leading scorer against the Lakers in the regular season, Pippen or shooting guard Steve Smith. Conversely, for all the Blazers' depth, they may not have anyone well-suited to tracking Bryant. Although Pippen is still exceptionally adept at playing team defense, he is not the one-on-one stopper he once was. Still, with such solid players as Greg Anthony, Brian Grant, Detlef Schrempf and Bonzi Wells in reserve, coach Mike Dunleavy has more cards to play than Jackson does.
At close of business on Sunday, the Blazers had been a better team in the postseason than the Lakers. It's rare that a team slumps late in the regular season, then recovers in the playoffs, but Portland seems to have done it. The Lakers, meanwhile, have yet to regain the consistently dominant form they showed in cruising to the Pacific Division title. "We haven't played our best ball yet," O'Neal said after Game 3. "Am I concerned about that? No."