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Lakers Ready to Stake Claim

Pro basketball: A victory over Portland tonight will give L.A. the Western Conference championship and a berth in NBA finals.


Back from the siege and sacking of Portland, the Lakers on Monday mustered themselves for the Portland Trail Blazers' final stand tonight, and murmured about the great unconquered territory ahead.

There isn't much landscape left--five victories to a championship.

But what's out there is precious, and some have gone entire careers without approaching its borders.

What's out there is the Western Conference championship, which can be the Lakers' with a victory over Portland tonight at Staples Center, and then a clean shot at an NBA championship.

"I think if the goal was to win a Western Conference championship and stop there," said forward Rick Fox, "we'd be pretty excited right about now.

"But I haven't sensed any added intensity or excitement about being one game away from the finals. All we've talked about all year was winning the whole thing."

What's out there is everything worth getting.

Coach Phil Jackson, while directing his players' attention to tonight's activity, acknowledged that the Lakers accomplished some wondrous things during their weekend in Portland, traveling vast distances at a rapid and rapturous rate of speed.

"There just has to be a moment where a team suddenly believes in itself and refuses to give in to either disappointment or bad luck and they just fight their way through it," Jackson said Monday after his team's film session and before a short, voluntary workout.

"It's that belief or that total unity of team where they suddenly think, 'Yeah, we're invincible.' And they believe themselves."

In Sunday's Game 4 mix of defense, clutch shooting and Shaquille O'Neal's free-throw perfection, or perhaps most definitively, in Friday night's Game 3 comeback from the Trail Blazers' early and nearly successful knockout try, the Lakers might have arrived, Jackson said.

They had just lost Game 2 at Staples in a dismal offensive display--their first home loss of the playoffs. With three days between games, they had limped to Portland needing at least a split to sustain hopes to win this series, and had a 1-3 road record in the playoffs to worry them.

"I thought it took a lot of time for them to recover, and I was willing to let them mope for a day or two, you know, lick their wounds as a basketball club," Jackson said.

"But they were able to sustain their good feel about their teammates. There's a tendency for players to blame, but they didn't. And that gave me hope that they would be able to get it back and get inspired about playing together again, and they did it."

And then they saw Portland surge to a 15-2 lead in Game 3, leading to a 55-45 halftime advantage.

Did Jackson see something special then, when the Lakers began a remarkable surge that did not end until they had taken both games in Portland and a 3-1 series lead?

"I certainly did," he said. "Friday night, coming back from 10 points down, where there was so much energy in a building like that, was a great win--a big breakthrough for this team . . .

"I think perhaps that game on Friday is one of the games of the year for us as a basketball club . . .

"This team has continually grown, little by little, in each series. And I kept telling them, they are getting there. They're not there yet--they're getting there, to the point where they can start to think of themselves as a team that's invincible and decide to be a team that can be worthy of moving into that final round."

Said forward Glen Rice: "It's no surprise to us. We realize that when we go out and play the way we're capable of playing, we're definitely the best team in the league."

How did a Laker team that has crumbled under the playoff glare in three consecutive seasons--this squad has won three more conference final games than the previous eight combined--move itself to this higher ground?

Fox said it's not about talent, but about finding the right guides (veterans Ron Harper, A.C. Green, Robert Horry and John Salley) and the correct and confident path.

"[The Lakers have] leadership from individuals that obviously have played in this league for numerous years, have won championships, been there," Fox said, "guys that the young players and guys that aren't so young but still haven't been there, can look to and take belief from.

"We've been blessed to have four guys that have won championships along with a coaching staff that has won six of them.

"The atmosphere is a lot different. There's more of a stabilizing force from the locker room to the court."

O'Neal put it in his own metaphoric way, but the sensibility was the same: Better, stronger leadership brings success.

"This is a new time, we have new players, we have a new regime," he said. "Our congress is much stronger.

"In the past, we had a strong army, but the congress wasn't strong enough. The decision-making wasn't strong enough. Now everybody's strong."

Fox said he very much wants to see the new Laker focus at work tonight, closing up the conference finals with a resounding victory at home.

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