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Hanging Around By avoiding a sweep at the hands of the Lakers, the Suns may have merely postponed the inevitable, but they again revealed L.A.'s vulnerability

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

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 L.A.'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 rebounder (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 nonfactor 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."

If the Lakers have a real concern, it's not that they haven't
played their best ball, it's that they have--in February and
March. They should survive the Blazers, but not before they've
played seven games that will cause them a few more worries along
the way.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH NEVER SAY DYE Bryant attacked the rim--and a suddenly blond Kidd--during Los Angeles's Game 3 victory in Phoenix.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER D SHARP Stoudamire and Wallace were up in arms against Utah's Quincy Lewis in Game 1.

Teams that can run and can attack the Lakers' weakness at power
forward have a chance. Portland can do both.