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Lakers Draw the Line

Near-Perfect Free-Throw Performance Leaves L.A. a Win Away From NBA Finals


PORTLAND, Ore. — As promised, as feared, and as perfect as anyone could have imagined, Shaquille O'Neal on Sunday led the Lakers within a single stride of the NBA finals.

One free throw at a time.

As if the moment had been summoned by Phil Jackson or some even higher power, as the Rose Garden crowd shattered eardrums and as the game swayed in the balance, O'Neal smiled at the free-throw line and performed his own water torture on the Portland Trail Blazers.

Splash. Splash. Splash. Splash.

This. Game. Is. Over.

(Probably this series too.)

The Trail Blazers unraveled under the drip-drip, and the Lakers raced away with a resounding 103-91 victory in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals to take a 3-1 lead back home for Tuesday's potential series-clinching Game 5 at Staples Center.

Other Lakers turned in important performances--Glen Rice broke out with 21 points, including a huge 12-point spurt in the deciding third quarter; Kobe Bryant fought through a bad shooting spell to score 18 points and pass out seven assists, and Ron Harper once again played hard-nosed defense and made six crucial baskets.

The Lakers swept both games in Portland, a monumental reversal of fortune after the Trail Blazers beat the Lakers in Game 2 on Monday at Staples.

But the only performance that seemed touched by a higher purpose was O'Neal's, and every Laker knew it.

"My daughter's 3 years old, and of course she doesn't really know the game," O'Neal said with a giant smile after making all nine of his free throws Sunday--and six for six when he was intentionally fouled in the fourth quarter--the best playoff performance of his career at the foul line.

"But today I called her and I said, 'Daddy loves you.' And she said, 'Good luck, bend your knees.'

"I'm on the phone like, 'What?' She's 3 years old and her name is Taahirah. The game was for her."

O'Neal's free throws did not single-handedly win the game or subdue Portland, and perhaps his active defense had a greater effect on the outcome and sent the Trail Blazers to a 39% shooting effort.

And O'Neal, though struggling in this series from the line, hadn't by himself lost the Lakers any games with his sub-50% performance.

But neither O'Neal, Jackson nor the other Laker players tried to reduce the impact of the sight of O'Neal at the line, beaming happily, and calling for more.

If O'Neal, who also had 11 rebounds and 25 points, is going to swish free throws at crunch time, what does the rest of the league do now?

"I had to take him out early so he could keep that stat sheet," said Jackson, who removed O'Neal for good with 2:28 to play.

"We told him, put that on a wall. Frame that one. I mean, the defensive strategy to foul Shaq really backfired on them, and it really sewed the game up."

Why was O'Neal smiling? "Because I felt like Pete Maravich, that guy from LSU [where O'Neal went to school].

"I just had a rhythm, and I just got it going. My only problem is I've been real inconsistent at the line. . . . I think if I could develop some consistency, I could become a great player in this league one day."

Said Portland Coach Mike Dunleavy, whose strategy of intentionally fouling O'Neal stirred up controversy in Game 1: "Hey, that's the answer, right there. It's not the league making new rules or anything else. You make free throws, then it makes it tough on other teams to do that."

O'Neal's effort was the capstone to a scintillating, 31-for-34 Laker free-throw performance Sunday. In a stretch that lasted from the final minutes of the second quarter to the final minutes of the fourth, the Lakers made 18 consecutive free throws.

That helped the Lakers again absorb another early Portland offensive surge (this time, a 10-2 start, leading to a 25-16 first-quarter lead), and, when the Lakers tossed in some hard defense in the third quarter and began making shots, the game was theirs.

"We went into the locker room at halftime [trailing by five], and felt like we could not play much worse than we played," Jackson said.

As they did in Game 3, the Lakers used the third quarter as a launching point back into the game. Bryant, who made only two of nine shots in the first half, warmed up in the third; Rice had his hottest run of the playoffs, and then Portland faded away.

Only Rasheed Wallace (34 points, 13 rebounds) and Scottie Pippen (11 points, 10 rebounds but only four-of-12 shooting) lashed back, but they, too, were eventually erased.

"All the pressure was on them," Bryant said. "This was a must-win situation for them and we just had to come in, play loose, hold them off the initial part of the ballgame, then we just played.

"We felt that if we just hung in there, the pressure would get to them, and we'd be able to go on a run."

Said O'Neal: "I think certain people forgot that we were a pretty good road team [after the Lakers went 1-3 on the road to start the playoffs].

"The first two series, we really didn't do well on the road. We really didn't have to do well on the road--we were playing so dominant at home."

Dating to Feb. 29, when the Lakers won a huge regular-season game to take control of the Pacific Division race, the Lakers have won three in a row at the Rose Garden.

They brought themselves within a single victory of their first trip to the NBA finals since losing to Jackson's Chicago Bulls in 1991.

"Well, we're one away from the big dance," Bryant said.

Said Harper: "I think we came in and we earned these games. We didn't ease into these games."


New Heights

The free-throw shooting of the Lakers and Shaquille O'Neal improved dramatically from the 29-point loss in Game 2 to the 12-point victory in Game 4.

Western Conference Finals

Game 4

Lakers 103, Portland 91

Lakers lead series, 3-1




6 p.m., at Staples Center

Television: Channel 4

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