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NBA PLAYOFFS

In a Game of Mismatches, Lakers Have Matchup Edge

Analysis: Although Wallace will prove troublesome for L.A., Portland will have its hands full trying to slow O'Neal and Bryant.

April 21, 2001|LONNIE WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Don't be fooled by the way the Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers closed the regular season--the Lakers with eight consecutive victories; the Trail Blazers with seven losses in 10 games. Once the playoffs start, anything can happen.

There's no question that the Lakers have the two best players in the best-of-five series, center Shaquille O'Neal and shooting guard Kobe Bryant. But the team advancing to the second round will be the one that plays together.

The keys to the Lakers' recent success have been their overall defense and O'Neal's free-throw shooting. The Lakers have become better on-the-ball defenders and O'Neal has been making free throws on a regular basis.

Another plus for the Lakers has been Bryant's play since he returned from various foot and ankle injuries. No longer a liability on defense, he has also started to pass the ball within Coach Phil Jackson's team concept.

Although the Trail Blazers have been inconsistent the last two months, going 15-17 since the All-Star break, they present some unique matchup problems for the Lakers.

It starts with Rasheed Wallace against Horace Grant. The volatile Wallace must play well on both ends of the court. If he does, the Trail Blazers will ride him every game against the contentious but slowing Grant.

Portland Coach Mike Dunleavy is always looking for mismatches, and if Wallace is on his game, Dunleavy's tendency of going with the hot player will work to Portland's advantage.

Wallace, who averaged 28 points and 8.8 rebounds in four games against the Lakers, can use his size inside to shoot over Grant. If Grant tries to smother or front Wallace, the Trail Blazer power forward is too strong and quick and will get to the rim for easy baskets.

To combat his offensive game near the basket, the Lakers may try to double-team or have O'Neal sag into the lane. But if Portland center Arvydas Sabonis is making perimeter shots, O'Neal will have to defend Sabonis and will be taken out of the defensive equation against Wallace.

The Trail Blazers will try to exploit O'Neal's perimeter defense with pick-and-roll plays. He rarely steps out aggressively to stop a pick-and-roll and Portland likes to run point guard Damon Stoudamire around picks set by the player O'Neal is defending. If Sabonis is out of the game, Wallace will play center and look for his outside shot.

The Lakers' Derek Fisher will have to defend Stoudamire and not allow him to get into an offensive flow. The Trail Blazers are a championship quality team when Wallace and Stoudamire are scoring. But if Stoudamire is having problems, Portland will not hesitate to use Rod Strickland, who is better running the halfcourt offense.

The Trail Blazers will miss shooting guard Bonzi Wells, out for the season because of a knee injury. Bryant had trouble defending Wells, whose size and speed gave Portland another matchup edge.

Veteran Steve Smith is no slouch. He has played well in replacing Wells, but, even if Smith is scoring, he will be seriously overmatched defensively against Bryant.

Stacey Augmon is another option for Portland at shooting guard. He is known for his defense but has played well offensively when called upon. He can also play small forward when the Trail Blazers go with a small lineup. It will be a surprise, however, if Dunleavy decides to use a defensive lineup against the Lakers because Portland simply does not a defender to stop O'Neal.

Sabonis may have the size to bang with O'Neal, but the Laker center is too agile for him. The Lakers' game plan will be to keep getting the ball inside to O'Neal, who averaged 25.7 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 55.1% from the field against the Trail Blazers.

If Sabonis is missing shots from the perimeter, his playing time will be decreased because he can't handle O'Neal on defensive. But neither can undersized Dale Davis. With Shawn Kemp unavailable, expect the Trail Blazers to trap O'Neal full time and assign veteran Scottie Pippen to defend Bryant.

If Pippen can play at the level he did when he was a Chicago Bull, the Trail Blazers may be able to get away with double-teaming O'Neal, staying with Bryant at all times and forcing the other Lakers to beat them.

For Lakers such as Rick Fox, Robert Horry, Ron Harper and Brian Shaw, along with Fisher, it will be target practice. The temptation will be to rely on shooting from the perimeter, but driving the ball to the basket will force Portland to scramble defensively.

If the Trail Blazers are able to turn the Lakers into a two-man team with O'Neal and Bryant, as they did in defeating them twice this season, they have a chance to pull the upset.

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