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NBA PLAYOFFS

Who Has The Edge

April 21, 2001|TIM BROWN

STARTERS

Kobe Bryant has played 17 games since Feb. 20, sitting out 14 of the Lakers' final 31 games because of ankle injuries. While he remains at less than full strength, he is as fit as he was early in the season, when his legs were under him and his shots were falling. Shaquille O'Neal scored at least 31 points in 11 consecutive games to end the season. Rasheed Wallace and Damon Stoudamire create mismatches wherever they go. The difference here could be an aggressive, accurate Derek Fisher, who made seven of 12 shots, including four of six three-pointers, for 21 points when the teams met Sunday at Staples Center. Edge: Lakers.

BENCH

Bonzi Wells suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament, which probably kept J.R. Rider off the Laker playoff roster, and Shawn Kemp checked himself into a substance-abuse clinic, significantly lightening the Trail Blazer bench. Wells' injury forced silky Steve Smith into the starting lineup. Dale Davis and Will Perdue can take valuable minutes on O'Neal. Robert Horry is the critical series reserve for the Lakers, who can't have Horry and Horace Grant in foul trouble guarding Wallace. Ron Harper won't be available to the Lakers until Game 2, at the earliest. Edge: Trail Blazers.

OFFENSE

The Lakers averaged 100.6 points a game, third behind the Sacramento Kings and Milwaukee Bucks. When O'Neal is happy, light on his feet and making his free throws, there's no more devastating scorer in the league. All of that is happening right now. His happiness generally rises and falls with Bryant's game, which has been properly deferential since Bryant returned four games before the end of the regular season. The Trail Blazers scored at least 100 points in five of their last seven games, including a 105-100 loss to the Lakers on Sunday. They averaged nearly 98 points in four games against the Lakers. It would help if Arvydas Sabonis made a few of his tippy-toe jumpers early, forcing O'Neal to step out, freeing the lane for Stoudamire and Wallace. Edge: Lakers.

DEFENSE

Not the scorer he once was, Scottie Pippen has become Portland's defensive conscience. While the Trail Blazers still don't have a good answer for O'Neal, no one does. Sabonis does what he can, and if he stands in there and doesn't flop, he might not get totally overrun. At times they've done a decent job on Bryant, who scored 14 points in the season opener and was nine for 21 from the field on Sunday. Without an answer Sunday for Wallace, Smith or Stoudamire, the Lakers were fortunate to win. Bryant had trouble Sunday with Smith, but it wasn't as bad as it could have been. In the past, Portland ran Smith and Wells at Bryant, hoping for early foul trouble. Edge: Trail Blazers.

COACHING

Is there anybody left standing who had more trying seasons than these two? Faced with feuding superstars, team-wide malaise, J.R. Rider and a disappearing defense, Phil Jackson quintupled his usual fine system. Mike Dunleavy lugged around an unwieldy payroll of stars, massive expectations and an odd collection of personalities, turning it all into a No. 7 seeding in the conference. It wasn't pretty. While Portland would seem to have plenty to fight for, there's no discounting the seven rings Jackson carries into the series. Edge: Lakers.

KEY TO THE SERIES

Perhaps instead of spending all that money on electricity and heat and over-officious security forces at Staples Center, let O'Neal and Wallace play one-on-one for an hour, winner advances. The Lakers--Grant and Horry--must push Wallace into unfamiliar places on the floor, or risk watching his turnaround jumpers run them right out of the playoffs. The Trail Blazers--Sabonis and Co.--must hope O'Neal falls out of his free-throw zone. In it, O'Neal is fearless and cannot be defended. Pick: Lakers, 3-1.

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