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Front And Center: The Contenders

First-round meeting between last season's marquee teams adds pressure and makes one ponder what will become of the loser.


By the end, someone's going to have an awful lot of explaining to do.

Assuming the No. 2 versus No. 7 portion of the Western Conference playoffs does end--a snappy, three-game sweep would require every bit of eight days--the basketball alone won't explain what gripped the Lakers this season, or what befell the Portland Trail Blazers.

When they begin the reenactment of last year's conference finals this afternoon at Staples Center, the scene of the Trail Blazers' greatest collapse since draft day 1984, they'll both play for redemption, to clear their consciences, and for the right to live to explain again.

Portland Coach Mike Dunleavy sighed, drew his hand over his chin and said, "There's no good thinking there. It's all negative. Everything's about the series, winning games and advancing."

The repercussions of a first-round exit would appear to be dire for both teams, though the Lakers in nearly any scenario would be left with Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, so it shouldn't get critically bad for years.

"One team will go on," said Rick Fox, Laker forward and keeper of perspective. "The other will have to deal with personnel issues it didn't expect to have to deal with."

Laker Coach Phil Jackson called the annual roster migration of NBA players "a gladiator's life."

"We know who we are," Jackson said. "We know what we were built on. We were built on the fact that Kobe and Shaq are the best one-two combination in the game, and the complementary players around them want to play as a team and want to figure in this. As a coaching staff, we're telling the one and two players in the game that they've got to include everybody on this team if we're going to win against Portland."

Since Jackson arrived two years ago, the Lakers and Trail Blazers have played 15 times. The Lakers have won eight. The Trail Blazers have outscored the Lakers by eight points.

Portland added frontline depth to counter O'Neal. The Lakers added Horace Grant to defend the conference's great power forwards, Rasheed Wallace foremost among them.

They stand on the verge of a series that, when last played, was won with a 31-13 fourth quarter in Game 7 of the conference finals, lost with 13 consecutive misses from the field.

On Sunday, when last they played, Wallace leaned over to Laker guard Brian Shaw and said, "You've got what I want."

The Trail Blazers slapped together an $89-million assortment of muscle, ego and expertness, a desperate talent grab that in the end simply drew the Lakers in round one instead of round three. Dunleavy's job could ride on the outcome, and his might not be the only one.

They begin the series without Laker annoyance Bonzi Wells, on the inactive list because of a torn knee ligament, or Shawn Kemp, who is treating a drug addiction. Wallace, their temperamental forward, hasn't played since last Sunday, when he hit teammate Arvydas Sabonis with a towel and was suspended a game for it. The league fined him again this week for blowing off the media, running neck-and-neck with referees on his "would most like to smack with terry cloth" list.

"I'm here to play basketball," Wallace announced on his way to the court Saturday, a certain relief to Sabonis.

So, the Trail Blazers bring absolutely nothing to suggest their heads are in this, having ended the regular season with three consecutive losses, 14 losses in 22 games, and the general odor of a pricey experiment gone bad.

What they do have, however, is the total attention of the Lakers, who at the end of their own tumultuous season drew the single toughest and priciest seventh-seeded team the NBA has ever known.

"It's tenuous," Jackson said.

In the meantime, the Lakers are trying to live up to the expectations brought on them by last year's championship, which didn't lift their play or stoke their confidence as much as it haunted their psyches. They came into training camp stating that last season's championship was over, then went about proving just how over it was, with soft defense, petty feuds and serial tardiness.

Their incendiary regular season ended happily enough, with Bryant coming back from ankle injuries and playing to O'Neal, who had one of the great months of his career. It led to an eight-game winning streak, a season high, and the longest winning streak to conclude a season in franchise history.

At the very end, O'Neal stood almost arrogantly at the free-throw line, banging home 13 in a row, holding the finish like one of those high-strung vaulters who has nailed his landing. He has made 16 of 17 going back to Sunday's game, a 105-100 victory over Portland.

"I don't think it gets personal," O'Neal said. "They bring the best out of us and we bring out the best in them."




Oct. 31, 2000

The Rose Garden

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