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All That Remains Is a Punctuation Mark

May 29, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE

PORTLAND, Ore. — Heat L.A.

Fifteen-feet L.A.

Complete L.A.

Sweet L.A.

By the middle of the fourth quarter Sunday, it was hard to tell exactly what the locals were chanting, what with all the rustling of rain slickers as some bolted for the door.

But one could imagine.

After spending three splendid Northwest days amid verdant defenses and snow-capped rebounds--all of it surrounding two clear and rushing victories--everything for a certain Southern California team changed.

The Laker mood, their mission, their mantra.

And, oh yes, their signature.

Because finally, they have one.

Their 103-91 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday was about more than a two-game plowing of the Rose Garden. It gave them more than a 3-1 lead in the NBA championship series, otherwise known as the Western Conference finals.

What it did was, it put it all on paper.

In one sweeping gesture across the blank line that has been waiting for their hand, the Lakers penned who they are, what makes them different, and why they could soon be worthy of notarization as NBA champions.

It's not the flashy script of a movie star, but the simple elegant one of a working man.

It's not about dunks, but details.

It's not about fun but, well, gulp, pressure free throws.

It's not at all what we have come to expect, but more than we could have hoped to imagine.

"It's gritty," said Rick Fox, shaking his head and smiling at the revelation. "I know we have the two big stars and all that, but, you know, it's gritty."

It's a stumble at the beginning. It's a calm comeback in the middle. It's defense and five guys who want the ball at the end.

It's a coach who doesn't blink, a big man who doesn't balk, and a kid guard who never bails.

It's a wide bench, where once we thought there was only the occasional stool.

And while it's not indelible, it seems permanent enough to last for a couple more weeks.

Five more victories, to be exact.

"When all the guys are doing their thing . . . we're hard to beat," acknowledged Ron Harper with an almost surprised laugh. "I mean, we're good."

All season, they've been saying that.

Sunday, Harper sounded as if he actually meant it.

Sunday, they sold it.

This was, after all, a game they figured to lose. The script was so comically obvious it belonged weeknights on UPN.

The Lakers were coming off their biggest victory of the season. Translation? Letdown.

They were playing in a loud and hostile gym for a second consecutive game. Translation? Meltdown.

They came without an important reserve, suspended Brian Shaw. Translation? Fall down.

"It always happens to us, we look like we can blow out a team or a series and all of a sudden we act like, 'Well, that's not any fun,' and we let them back in," Fox said.

In the first half Sunday, it looked as if that was happening again.

Kobe Bryant had made as many shots as Brian Grant (two). The Trail Blazers had more rebounds, more assists, more steals, more hustle, and five more points.

Then Phil Jackson, as he has done throughout his two best games as Laker coach, had an idea.

Just before the second-half tipoff, he shared it with Glen Rice.

"They said they were going to run some screens for me in the first play," Rice related, his eyes growing wide. "I like that. That's my specialty."

No matter that the last time somebody ran two screens for Rice was maybe, like, back in Charlotte?

He took the ball on that first play, cut right, sprung down the lane between three stunned defenders, laid the ball in, absorbed a foul, hit the foul shot.

By the time the Trail Blazers looked up again, Rice had 12 points in the quarter, the Lakers had 34, the Blazers had 19, and the game was over.

Finished, too, is this series, with the first chance for this to be formalized coming Tuesday at Staples Center.

"When I've thought about being on a team in a position to win a championship, this is pretty much perfect," Rice said. "Everybody having a lot of fun, everybody ready to play the game. The atmosphere is something else."

In that third quarter, it was an atmosphere where Bryant shrugged off his poor shooting to leap and block a Scottie Pippen layup.

It was an atmosphere where A.C. Green, barely visible earlier, finally started bumping Rasheed Wallace before sinking a turnaround jumper against him and shouting about it as he ran down the court.

Rice made one three-point shot after a five-second span that featured five passes.

Harper sneaked in a layup on a possession that featured two offensive rebounds by Robert Horry.

That took the game to the free-throw line, where the Lakers are masons when there is no pressure, and often masterful when there is.

After they made 20 of 22 in the second half, Portland Coach Mike Dunleavy was cornered into the obvious.

"They make their free throws, they're a damn good team," he said.

And now, they are a team in possession of the one thing that has always marked great teams, that signature.

The New York Yankees of the 1990s were known for their toughness, the Denver Broncos for their skill.

These Lakers could one day be known for a little bit of each, a signature so unique that it's most vibrant swirl does not come until the end.

You know, The Big Exclamation Point.


Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address:

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