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
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
"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
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
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
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
cross-checks 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.
Still, Kobe and Shaq, according to popular opinion, were enough
at odds with each other that the Lakers couldn't possibly
persevere through the tension. Make no mistake, the tension was
real. Derek Fisher, Sunday's real star with 17 points and eight
rebounds, said, "We were as fragile as an egg." Admittedly, it
was Faberge, but, still, an egg. What's more, Lakers coach Phil
Jackson, for all his Zen blather, didn't seem capable of bringing
his stars together, and he sometimes inflamed the volatile
partnership. (Bryant's agent, Arn Tellem, talked of a slander
lawsuit against Jackson, but that's another story. It would help
if guys didn't publish books during the season. Kobe was the only
one in the triangle not to hit the best-seller list this year.)
If you were going to predict which team would be torn asunder,
you would have chosen L.A. over Portland any day.
"Winning solves a lot of problems," Fisher said. Or maybe Fisher
solved a lot of problems. Since returning to the Lakers after
missing the first 62 games of the season with a stress fracture
in his right foot, Fisher has led them back to a level of play
that didn't seem possible with the ball-hogging Kobe-Shaq combo.
Fisher, Horry and Rick Fox all played big parts in L.A.'s three
playoff wins, and Kobe-Shaq didn't seem to mind one bit.
Welcomed it even. "This is by far the best our teammates have
been playing," Bryant said on Sunday. When playmaker Kobe has
confidence in his teammates, he's far more likely to kick the
ball to them. And the Lakers are far more likely to win.
Sunday's victory was L.A.'s 11th straight dating back to the
regular season, suggesting a roll that won't end until a lot
further down the line. "I don't know if any team has the
opportunity to beat them," said Dunleavy, more or less
acknowledging that the Lakers have somehow lifted themselves
above the casual insult of rivalries. It's just them now. They
don't have to share.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH HANDBALL As Bryant fed O'Neal, and vice versa, the Blazers saw that these were not the dysfunctional Lakers of the regular season.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH PALMING Steve Smith scored 16 points in Game 2, but on some drives his mind was changed by Bryant's outstretched arms.
"I don't know if any team has the opportunity to beat them,"
Dunleavy said of the Lakers.