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Shaq's Having Sweep Dreams

NBA playoffs: In a series he has dominated, Laker center expects more of the same against short-handed Trail Blazers.


PORTLAND, Ore. — Matched now against Arvydas Sabonis, then Antonio Harvey, then Rasheed Wallace, then the next to make the critical mistake of eye contact with Mike Dunleavy, Shaquille O'Neal allowed himself a moment Saturday afternoon.

Reclined in a baseline seat at the Rose Garden while hail clattered at the roof above him, O'Neal acknowledged he's having a pretty good time in these playoffs.

"We shouldn't change anything," he said.

The Lakers lead the best-of-five series with the Portland Trail Blazers two games to none, with the chance to sweep this afternoon. The only flaw in last year's championship came in moments such as this, with a foe in trouble and the Lakers' attention in the round to come, so they're still sweating the reeling, fractured, undermanned Trail Blazers.

The Lakers haven't swept a postseason series since 1991, when they beat the Houston Rockets in three games.

"We might not react well to the adversity of this court," Laker Coach Phil Jackson said. "You never can tell what can happen. That's one of the situations we have to address as a basketball team; that's having poise and control, and I wasn't totally pleased with all of that [Thursday] night."

Among the reasons the Lakers have edged so near to the second round is O'Neal, whose game has grown as big as Trail Blazer owner Paul Allen's fortune, or as his disappointment, whichever is larger today.

And now the Trail Blazers are without Dale Davis and Stacey Augmon, suspended for Game 3 because Davis swung an elbow Thursday night and Augmon rushed onto the court to do what, exactly, no one's sure. With Davis go six more fouls on O'Neal, which means more minutes for Sabonis, who has had his own issues with foul trouble and fatigue.

Not only do the Trail Blazers lack the man to guard O'Neal, but now they lack the manpower as well. Sabonis probably can't stay with O'Neal for 40 minutes, but he shouldn't feel towel-whipped over it.

"Nobody can," O'Neal said. "Not even Goldberg. Or the Undertaker. All those wrestling guys. I'm a football player that plays basketball. A hockey player too, except I can't skate."

O'Neal has averaged 28 points and 16 rebounds in the two playoff games. The Lakers have won 10 in a row, and O'Neal is feeling a rush from it.

"The older I get the better I get," said O'Neal, who turned 29 last month. "For me, I'll probably walk away from the game at the T. Right now I'm at B-E-S-. When I come to the T, then I'll just walk away. I don't see myself playing to where I can't walk or can't run.

"I've got good teammates around me. I'm wiser, playing a lot smarter. It's just that in order for me to be at that greatness level, I've got to have all cylinders going. I've always had game, but I had some problems at the free-throw line. You people held that against me. Now I'm shooting them well."

There you have it--Eddie Palubinskas is going to make Shaq retire early.

Wallace might spare a T. He has got plenty. More likely, O'Neal's T will arrive closer to 2006, when his contract expires, the final year paying more than $32 million.

"I don't know," he said. "A couple years, maybe. One, two or three years."

More importantly, for the moment, is when the Trail Blazers will go away.

"I think we know they aren't gone until they're eliminated," Laker guard Derek Fisher said. "We learned that last season. This is personal for all of us."

Even as the Trail Blazers floundered through two games, the Lakers continued to give them the puncher's chance to win Game 3. Not literally, though they wouldn't entirely rule that out, either.

"Who's the new world champion now?" Rick Fox said. "[Hasim] Rahman? Trust me, they've still got a right somewhere in their arsenal. If we come out like Lennox Lewis, nonchalant and careless and disrespect their abilities, we could catch a blow that knocks us back. And it could be too late to get up in the third or fourth quarter.

"Things seem to be splintering around them. When you smell blood, you have to pounce on that. You have to capitalize. It can't be a situation like the team last year that felt sorry for people and let them get up a little."

They're afraid that's all they'd need.

"In our situation, we're [facing] a team we don't want to unite," Jackson said. "We don't want them to get a vision or a hope. I told the team we want to keep a foot in their neck."




2:30 p.m., Ch. 4



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