PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland Trail Blazers want the Western Conference finals to follow a script, while the Lakers are rapping freestyle on them.
Convention, predictions--even common sense--would have the series tied right now. If anyone should have the lead it should have been the Trail Blazers after their brazen heist of Game 2 in Staples Center.
Portland Coach Mike Dunleavy has been playing the odds, sticking with the book. He's sitting at the blackjack table, hitting on 16, standing on 17.
It doesn't work when the dealer keeps pulling aces.
The Lakers' fifth option hit a game-winning shot Friday, the worst free-throw shooting team in the playoffs shot 91% from the line Sunday and now the Lakers have a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Portland needs to shake things up or else the Trail Blazers will get shown the door. Dunleavy needs to get a little bolder, maybe double down when the dealer is showing a king.
Usually a series has only one or two "freak" games--a game decided by a lucky shot, a bad call or some unworldly shooting performance.
This series has already had three major aberrations: the Lakers' hot three-point shooting and 37-point second quarter in Game 1, their eight-point third quarter in Game 2, and Sunday's 31-for-34 effort from the free-throw line, with Shaquille O'Neal making nine of nine.
To make things worse for Portland, the Trail Blazers missed several layups and a couple of dunks during their 103-91 loss in Game 4.
Dunleavy's plan of double-teaming O'Neal and Kobe Bryant was the right approach. He said he sees no reason to abandon it.
"The other strategy is to be like the other teams and let them get 50 [points] a night," Dunleavy said. "I don't think so. We've won enough times and we've seen enough good results to know that that is the way to play."
It worked perfectly when they held O'Neal and Bryant to a combined 36 points and no one else did anything in Game 2.
But Robert Horry made three of five three-pointers in Game 1, Ron Harper made the game-winning shot in Game 3, then Harper came back with 18 points in Game 4.
"The other guys that are involved in it, for the most part, that's who has to beat us," Dunleavy said. "Long-term, your highest percentages of beating this team is playing that way."
Dunleavy's problem is he doesn't have a long term anymore. Portland's season is down to one game. Even if the Trail Blazers win Tuesday night, they're still only one loss from elimination.
Dunleavy has played the percentages, even taking advantage of the rule-book loophole that allows his team to foul O'Neal when he isn't involved in the play and not be penalized. (Dunleavy and certain media types can harp all they want about the need to make your free throws. There's also a need to play defense like real men).
Extreme Hack-a-Shaq didn't get the job done, and for the last two games neither has the Slippin' Pippen defense that features Scottie Pippen sliding, collapsing and helping all over the court.
They have picked up Bryant in the backcourt and pressured him all the way. The next step is to trap all over the place, to really disrupt the triangle. They have the long arms to do it, the speed to recover and the depth to give their players a rest.
Speaking of depth, what was with the Trail Blazers playing the starters such heavy minutes Sunday?
Rasheed Wallace played 48 minutes and responded by giving the Trail Blazers 34 points and 13 rebounds. Dunleavy couldn't play him any more, but Portland could have gone to him a few more times.
Pippen played 44 minutes, Steve Smith 43.
"I just felt like this game was extremely important, that we had some guys out there that are capable of playing bigger minutes, that we could get the job done that way," Dunleavy said.
It was probably a response to Laker Coach Phil Jackson's clear intention to go with Bryant and O'Neal all the way and let his stars decide the game for him.
That approach has worked for the Trail Blazers, but it doesn't play to Portland's advantage, which is its depth. Backup point guard Greg Anthony played only four minutes Sunday, and Detlef Schrempf didn't get off the bench.
If anything, Dunleavy needs to be searching for more options, such as the productive minutes he got from seldom-used Stacey Augmon in Game 3.
Dunleavy had the better game plan in place for the first two games, and it successfully stole one game in Los Angeles for his team.
Jackson made the most notable adjustment before Game 3 by putting Bryant on Pippen defensively.
It's risky, because Pippen can put Bryant in foul trouble.
But it's working: Pippen averaged 11.5 points and made nine of 25 shots in the two games at Portland after scoring 21 points in Game 2.
"It's just holding Scottie so that he doesn't get so aggressive offensively he carries the team by either taking the ball to the basket or driving the ball at us," Jackson said. "That's been a very positive aspect in these last two victories."