Hard to believe this was ever a rivalry, but as recently as a year ago the Portland Trail Blazers were barely a missed free throw worse than the Los Angeles Lakers, who went from beating the Blazers in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals to winning the NBA championship. Now Portland, having beefed up its lineup just for the rematch, has no more business challenging the Lakers for the conference title than, say, the Los Angeles Clippers—who, for all their similar but less expensive travails, have at least improved.
How is that? Especially when it was the Lakers who suffered crises of confidence all season and the Trail Blazers who gorged on the open market to stockpile the deepest and most expensive team in the league. Conventional wisdom, it seems, didn't apply to this year's first-round playoffs, in which Los Angeles swept Portland with three of the easiest wins of its season, barely working up a sweat as it drove its presumed rival to bug-eyed frustration.
"This," Kobe Bryant said mockingly as he skated past the Trail Blazers' bench during Sunday's 99-86 romp, "is your last day at the office." Given the tenor of this series, which was mostly a psychological meltdown presented in three parts, it's a wonder the poor-poor? they make $90 million a year!—Blazers didn't fly from the sideline to throttle L.A.'s precocious star. But you see how it is: The Lakers aren't only beyond Portland, they are beyond reprisal.
This kind of hubris is often repaid with humiliation down the line, except in those rare and insufferable times when even arrogance can't keep pace with achievement. It's too early in these interminable playoffs to know whether the Lakers are as good as they think they are, or even better than last year. They're kind of fun to watch, however, and certainly fun to listen to—although they can't be much fun to play, unless you think sending free-throw-challenged Shaquille O'Neal to the line to shoot a technical, as Los Angeles did near the end of its Game 2 blowout, is a jolly good gibe. Nobody in the league has that much of a sense of humor.
Certainly not the Trail Blazers. They're not a good-natured group anyway, what with Rasheed Wallace's flinging a towel into Arvydas Sabonis's face during a timeout a couple of weeks ago (or Wallace's just being Wallace, really), and playing the Lakers really seems to set them on edge. After losing the opener 106-93 in Los Angeles, Portland vowed a performance worthy of its Scottie Pippen pedigree but instead delivered an extended tantrum in Game 2 at the Staples Center that left two Blazers suspended and featured a near six-pack of T's. Rasheed, God bless him, had a pair.
It's no picnic to lose a game 106-88, and the Blazers aren't composed enough to watch a good shooter take T's against them, much less Shaq. Though it's to coach Mike Dunleavy's credit that Portland didn't dissolve in Game 3, there's not much dignity in being swept, even if Blazer Dale Davis isn't putting an elbow into Laker Robert Horry's Adam's apple, as he did in Game 2 to earn his suspension.
Anyway, the Trail Blazers, who added dysfunction with every added dollar in player contracts, are gone, and after their conference-leading 35-15 record at the All-Star break was reduced somewhat by a 15-17 finish, so probably is Dunleavy. Pippen, who got six championship rings as Michael Jordan's sidekick, says he'll be back to keep trying for one on his own, but you—and he—can't like his chances much. "It's just the worst," he said on Sunday after yet another failure to lead a team to the title. "It's the worst thing I've ever had to deal with."
Then again, look what Portland was up against. Bryant, whom Pippen poked both literally and figuratively, is apparently resistant to any defense, physical or psychological. Pippen ragged that Bryant was faking his rib injury, sustained early in Game 1, the better to "be like Mike" in a heroic return. Bryant said Pippen was still his hero. Pippen took another tack, just in case Bryant wasn't faking, and jabbed him in the inflamed area during Game 2. Bryant, who averaged 25.0 points for the series, said Pippen was still his hero. (Pippen? He had 13.7 points per game, seven on Sunday.)
More vexing was O'Neal, and not only because he made that free throw. First, there was nothing Portland could do to thwart his monstrous low-post attack. Second, he knew it. "Nobody can stop me," he said on Saturday. "Not even Goldberg. Or the Undertaker." Nobody did, of course. Forget his scoring (27.0 points a game) and his rebounding (15.7). How about that free throw shooting: 21 of 34? Shaq explained, in his own way: "I'm a football player who plays basketball. A hockey player, too, except I can't skate."
He's also a motivational expert, having made a video to inspire the Los Angeles Kings in their Stanley Cup playoff run. On the tape, he flings his body against walls, delivers imaginary crosschecks and generally performs an impression of a man with Tourette's. Had Sabonis or any of the dozen or so other players whom Dunleavy ran in against Shaq seen the video, it might have explained their wincing trepidation under the basket.