PALM DESERT — This is a strange place to be, in the desert with summer bearing down like a four-on-one fastbreak, while telling people not to sweat it.
But this Laker season has never been mistaken for conventional. So the responses came.
Shaquille O'Neal: "It doesn't mean. . . . It doesn't mean nothing."
Robert Horry: "This is the playoffs. They might think they have a psychological edge, but that doesn't mean anything."
Byron Scott: "I really don't think it's worth anything."
So it went as the Lakers started the transition from losing three of four games to the Portland Trail Blazers in the regular season to facing the Trail Blazers in the first round of the playoffs, when Portland will need to win only three out of five.
The impact of what that has meant in the past is obvious--the Lakers' loss Sunday at the Rose Garden in the regular-season finale not only cost them the Pacific Division championship, but was the difference between getting the Phoenix Suns or the Trail Blazers when the playoffs open Friday night at the Forum. That's all.
The impact of what that means for the future? The answer, from both sides, is resounding.
It doesn't mean stuff.
"It doesn't," Trail Blazer guard Kenny Anderson said of his team's 3-1 advantage. "But it meant something for them [Sunday]. They wanted to win the division."
"To me," teammate Isaiah Rider added, "it really doesn't. This L.A. team can beat any team, just like we can beat any team. The regular season doesn't matter."
Let the Lakers count the reasons. Scott was on the 1989-90 squad that went 3-1 against Phoenix . . . and then lost in five games to the Suns in the Western Conference semifinals. Coach Del Harris can practically recite play-by-play of how his Milwaukee Bucks dropped all six regular-season contests to Atlanta in 1988-89 . . . and then beat the Hawks in the first round.
"I don't think it makes a difference," Harris said of the events of 1996-97. "We have to play good basketball. If we had won, 3-1, we still would have had to play good basketball."
In other words, everyone says, take any notion of the Trail Blazers having a psychological edge and re-psychol it.
Everyone, that it, except Nick Van Exel.
"They definitely have got a psychological advantage," the Laker guard said. "But we still feel pretty confident. We've got a few days to work on them. We already know what we've got to do. It's just a matter of going out and seeing if they can beat us three more times."
O'Neal had 24 points, seven rebounds and one block Sunday, except then he had the chance to force overtime. But with a hitch.
He had to make two free throws with 1.2 seconds left.
Degree of difficulty: 7.4.
The Trail Blazers, fouling to save an easy basket, gave him something to think about by calling a timeout before the first attempt. Then O'Neal gave everyone who had boasted about his recent improvements at the line something to think about. In the biggest moment of the biggest game of the regular season, he missed.
There goes the gained confidence?
"That's not the way he works," Harris said. "Shaquille is just the opposite. Some people, that would set them back. But it will just spur him on to work harder. That's how he operates."
Said O'Neal: "The good thing about me is I always come back strong. This isn't going to break me."
Likewise, the coach insisted as mini-camp in preparation for the playoffs opened Monday at College of the Desert, it's not going to deter him from calling plays for O'Neal in the closing moments of a close game. That would be Harris' approach to the free throws.
"I'm not going to say one way or another who I'll go to," Harris said. "But I can tell you I'm not going to avoid Shaq."
Not likely. Kind of like the Trail Blazers aren't likely to stop fouling.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Lakers vs. Portland
* Game 1: Friday at Forum, 7:30
* Game 2: Sunday at Forum, Noon
* Game 3: April 30 at Portland, 7:30
* Game 4: May 2 at Portland, TBA*
* Game 5: May 4 at Forum, TBA*
* if necessary
* NEW YORK HOPES: The Knicks like to talk about winning titles, but have mostly faced the wrath of their fans and media. What will it be this year? C4
* BRACKET: C4