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Unstoppable!
L. Jon Wertheim
June 05, 2000
Mirroring the calm and confidence of their coach, the Lakers burned the Trail Blazers twice and took the drama out of the Western conference finals
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June 05, 2000

Unstoppable!

Mirroring the calm and confidence of their coach, the Lakers burned the Trail Blazers twice and took the drama out of the Western conference finals

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It's hard to say when Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson started to lose his mojo. Maybe it was when he signed that monstrous five-year $30 million contract. Maybe it was when he started spending less time on his Harley and more time in his SUV. Maybe it was when the same man who wore a Panama hat adorned with a macaw feather to his initial interview with the Chicago Bulls started shilling for an on-line brokerage. Sure, Jackson may again be coaching the best team in basketball, but his mystique has diminished, the Zen thing has gotten old, those enigmatic pronouncements no longer seem so profound.

San Antonio Spurs guard Terry Porter spoke for many when he said last month, "I would like to see if all that Zen stuff would work in Vancouver or Dallas." Every team in the league has grasped the fundamentals of the vaunted triangle offense, the foundation for the Bulls' six titles—"It's not exactly brain surgery," Portland Trail Blazers coach Mike Dunleavy claimed last week. Even members of Jackson's current ashram have been surprised by the coach's taste for convention. "I expected him to do more far-out stuff," says Lakers forward Robert Horry. "About the weirdest thing Phil's had us do is yoga. That's just stretching and breathing, things I've been doing all my life."

Still, before dismissing Jackson by suggesting he's more sham than shaman, we must acknowledge that he has imparted one fundamental Zen quality to this Lakers team: preternatural calm. On the heels of an embarrassing 29-point home loss in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, the Lakers ventured to Portland last weekend for two crucial games. But if the games were so important that 5,000 Blazer-maniacs congregated in downtown Portland for a rally, the hype was lost on Jackson. No sense of desperation in evidence, he simply told his minions to relax, have fun and enjoy the challenge. "Last year we might have pushed the panic button," says L.A. guard Derek Fisher. "With Phil, he's so loose and confident, you can't help but be that way too. Our attitude was, What do we have to be worried about?"

Not much, it turned out. Withstanding a furious first-quarter outburst by Portland in each game, the Lakers prevailed twice to seize a commanding 3-1 series lead, draining the drama from what many considered the de facto NBA Finals. Bearing all the hallmarks of a Jackson-coached team, Los Angeles won with superior team defense, impressive efforts from two stars, key contributions from reserves and, above all, grace under pressure. "Staying cool and winning tight games, that's what championship teams do," says Lakers guard Ron Harper, who played on three (1995-96 to '97-98) under Jackson in Chicago. "That starts with Phil and rubs off on everyone else."

Take Shaquille O'Neal. He not only made a mockery of Dunleavy's Hack-a- Shaq ploy by calmly sinking all nine of his free throw attempts in Game 4 ("I felt like Pete Maravich," he joked), but also was masterly at passing out of the double team. Or consider forward Glen Rice, a nonfactor in Games 2 and 3, who lit up Blazers guard Steve Smith, a boyhood AAU rival in Michigan, for 12 points in the decisive third quarter of Game 4. Or Kobe Bryant, who scored 25 points in Game 3—mostly on fallaways that called to mind another shooting guard Jackson once coached—and resisted forcing the issue when his shot wasn't falling in Game 4. "We had to start making some kind of statement," said Jackson, who through Sunday had the highest playoff winning percentage (.729) of any coach in NBA history. "We stayed poised and made the plays when we had to."

Harper, though, showed the most composure. In the second half of Game 3, Portland's combustible forward, Rasheed Wallace, blocked one of Harper's shots and unleashed an R-rated trash-talk monologue, mocking Harper's speech impediment. It was an unconscionable cheap shot, but Harper, who speaks with a stutter, laughed it off. "I've been getting that since I was five years old, so whatever words he uses will never get to me," Harper says. "That just shows what kind of guy he is." ( Wallace refused to discuss the incident, and Blazers p.r. personnel denied it took place despite confirmation of Harper's account by a number of courtside observers.)

Later, with 29.9 seconds left and the score tied at 91, Harper again showed his poise. After Bryant departed from the triangle and found an opening in the Portland defense, he zipped a pass to Harper. Without hesitation, Harper let fly perhaps the biggest shot of his 14-year career: a dead-on, 19-foot baseline jumper that stood up as the game-winning shot. "When you've played as long as I have, you've gotta make that shot," Harper said last Saturday, his head covered by a hat with the inscription DREAMS ARE MEANT TO COME TRUE. He followed those heroics by scoring 18 points—more than double his season scoring average—and grabbing seven rebounds in Game 4.

At 36, having endured a series of knee operations, Harper is but a shadow of the dunking dervish who averaged nearly 23 points as a rookie with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1986-87. ("I can still dunk," he says, "it's just that I'm sore the next day") Nevertheless, he is precisely the type of battle-tested warrior who can emerge as a postseason x factor. "I'm always one of those guys who gets forgotten," says Harper, who claims he's mulling retirement. "It was the same way in Chicago. But here I am, trying to get my fourth ring."

Harper isn't the only former Bull who has given a strong accounting of himself in this series. Buoyed by nearly a decade of experience in Jackson's system, Blazers forward Scottie Pippen has played heroically on defense, often single-handedly altering the geometry of the Lakers' triangle offense. Roving the court like a free safety, Pippen has double-teamed O'Neal when the ball arrives in the post, forcing the Lakers to spread their offense halfway to Corvallis. When O'Neal kicks the ball back outside, Pippen jumps back out and plays exceptional perimeter defense. "I always thought you could only guard one man at a time, maybe one and a half," says Jackson. "Scottie has been all over the place."

Not so offensively. As Jackson insinuated in a psychological gambit before the series, Pippen might be an exquisite player, but he is not comfortable carrying a team. Although he brought his sextet of championship rings to practice last week in hopes of motivating his teammates, he demonstrated little interest in taking charge on the court. Defiantly youthful at 34, Pippen is still capable of taking his man off the dribble and driving to the basket. He is also a three-point threat. Yet when his team needed him most, he passed up scads of scoring opportunities, totaling only 23 points in last weekend's games. "I need to be more aggressive," he said. "But I also feel like I need to get my teammates involved in the flow."

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