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SPORTS EXTRA / NBA PLAYOFFS | THE NBA

Trust Him: It's Going to Get a Lot Closer

May 21, 2000|MARK HEISLER

Depite whatever that was at Staples Center on Saturday, the next two weeks still figure to be a reality check, courtesy of the Portland Trail Blazers' big, deep, $73.9-million roster.

It will be interesting to those of us who wondered how the Lakers won 67 games in the first place with two stars, one reputation and nine smallish role players.

Among the surprised, if the truth be known, were Phil Jackson and Jerry West. Jackson reconfigured the Lakers in camp and intended to really rock and roll as soon as they proved this combination didn't work, which Phil figured wouldn't be long in coming, say around Christmas.

Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year's, Valentine's Day and the trade deadline passed and now they're bearing down on Memorial Day and they still don't have a 240-pound power forward on the lot, or a backup center Jackson trusts.

West started off simply trying to stall Jackson's personnel requests, because whatever Jackson wanted--and pressed for in the papers daily--was not only expensive, it didn't resemble anything in the Laker Way, either.

Before Jackson, the only way a 36-year-old nonscorer such as Ron Harper could have gotten into a Laker game was with a ticket. Suddenly, Harper was deferring his retirement plans to show the Lakers how to run the triangle offense, while Derek Fisher, whom they had just signed for $21 million, went to the bench.

Jackson's vision was totally different, based less on the old Laker more-stars-are-better system than cohesion and a clear, stripped-down hierarchy: Jackson, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant.

Who dreamed it would transplant so fast? Not even Jackson.

Back when they were 8-4, with Bryant sidelined and a schedule crunch looming, I wrote a column about the sudden Laker change, from volatile/talented/deep to whatever this is.

The Lakers proceeded to finish the season 59-11, so this didn't go down as one of my great calls.

Nevertheless, I still think it's true. A year ago, Larry Brown did an amazing job, taking the Philadelphia 76ers into the playoffs while starting Eric Snow and George Lynch. Jackson went Brown one better, putting these Humpty Dumpties back together and finishing eight games ahead of the pack, while starting the venerable Harper and A.C. Green and platooning at both positions.

But in the playoffs, weaknesses are exposed and pounded on so it shouldn't have been a surprise that Green, a small power forward who got by on heart in his prime--which was a while ago--started getting devoured nightly by Chris Webber and Cliff Robinson; that teams left Green and Harper to double O'Neal; that the Lakers stopped dominating.

Not that the Trail Blazers are much better. They have size and depth but no one like O'Neal or Bryant.

So, it's an even match.

These teams are the best the NBA has, such as it is, and deserving of each other's respect. Not that you should expect much of that because the playoffs are also about agenda-setting and everyone uses the media to send their messages.

Before they even started, Jackson announced that Scottie Pippen was the only one who could carry the Trail Blazers, knowing in his crafty heart that scoring, getting his own shot and carrying a team are the only things Pippen doesn't do well.

The Trail Blazers aren't such bumpkins that they'll let Jackson designate their leader for them, but Jackson will think of something else, perhaps a variant on his best-team-money-can-buy theme.

This is also curious, coming from the coach of a historically lavish franchise, which is projecting a staggering $125 million-plus gross this season and has a $53-million roster--not counting the $9 million owner Jerry Buss pays Jackson and West.

The bottom line is, Trail Blazer owner Paul Allen and General Manager Bob Whitsitt got their guys the same way the Lakers got Jackson, O'Neal and Bryant--they stole 'em fair and square.

Among owners, Allen, a Microsoft co-founder, stands alone, in more ways than one. He is a major philanthropist, whose impact on his home was recently compared by the New York Times to the Medicis of Florence or Baron Haussmann, the planner who redesigned Paris.

Of course, Allen's home is Seattle, as is Whitsitt's, not Portland, reinforcing Trail Blazer fans' skepticism they've been colonized by their bigger neighbor. Despite all the slings, arrows and wisecracks the NBA's Richie Riches endure, a visiting multibillionaire is better than none.

Glamour franchise vs. fabulously wealthy one. Quantity vs. quality. It's a fair fight and it should be a good one. Welcome to Rivalry 2000.

HATFIELDS, McCOYS ARE GOING SEVEN

No one plays harder than the Miami Heat or is tougher than the New York Knicks. Too bad they aren't a little better at basketball.

The Knicks and Heat became bitter rivals when Pat Riley left the one for the other five years ago, after which their destinies seemed to become torturing each other throughout eternity.

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