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NBA PLAYOFFS * FIRST ROUND

Triple Threat

Pro basketball: As Lakers prepare for defense of their two championships, O'Neal says this one's on him.

April 21, 2002|TIM BROWN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shaquille O'Neal is beginning to think legacy, which is very much like him.

More properly, he's starting to feel it.

He no longer dunks over Los Angeles from the south wall of the Hotel Figueroa, where now some radio guy's two-story uvula dangles. But he predicted he would awake this morning, the day the Lakers have stared at since the city swept up after the last parade, feeling bigger than that.

The Lakers start over today--Game 1 and Series 1--and it is their time, they're sure, to become only the fifth NBA team to win three consecutive championships. O'Neal is reasonably hale after a season spent favoring his degenerative big toe, and Robert Horry is expected to play, and Kobe Bryant wore his dead eyes after practice Saturday.

They play the Portland Trail Blazers this afternoon at Staples Center, where two of the eight gold banners belong to this team, to O'Neal and Bryant and Coach Phil Jackson and the others who came along, feet up. It is a best-of-five series, round one of four, no more preparation, no more waiting, no more wondering if their tired legs would carry them through even one more day of the regular season.

"This is the moment we've been waiting for," O'Neal said.

Shaq, perhaps, more than anyone. Criticized for being out of shape and out of touch and, sometimes, out of patience, O'Neal had another trying regular season where he probably won't be the most valuable player, officially speaking, despite being the most dominant player, by far.

He played just often enough to be him, and just well enough to lead the Lakers to 58 victories. But, as O'Neal gets older, so too does November through March get more dreary, and so for the first time Jackson will try to win a league title without having won a division title.

"It's kind of a load off our shoulders," Bryant admitted, "to finally get to the playoffs."

No one will cop to being concerned about that, but they aren't yet listening to the national anthem at Arco Arena before Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, either.

As the Trail Blazers practiced on the arena floor Saturday afternoon, O'Neal was asked about the possibility for three consecutive championships, a feat exacted only by the Minneapolis Lakers, the Boston Celtics and by the Chicago Bulls, twice in the '90s, while he was growing into what he is now.

"For me, it'll mean something," he said, as if so many things don't.

And while the hallway filled around him with teammates and coaches, as the postseason stirred from East Rutherford, N.J., to Sacramento with reminders that unusual things happen in the most ordinary circumstances, O'Neal said that No. 3--if there is to be one--was his to lose. He wanted to be held accountable, no matter the result.

"I take all the responsibility," O'Neal said. "I've taken all the responsibility my whole career.

"And if something does happen, I don't want you guys to make excuses for me."

If the Lakers lose, O'Neal said, if their three-peat hopes die at two and the confetti is shipped to some other place this year, he doesn't want to hear about his arthritic toe, or his taped wrist, or what he almost did.

"I take all the responsibility," he said. "That's what a general does. I'm Powell. Phil is Bush."

Their postseason starts where last year's did, with the Trail Blazers, where a victory in Game 1 led to 10 more in a row, all the way to Game 1 of the NBA Finals. The Trail Blazers changed rosters and coaches, radical alterations that shot them all the way from the No. 7 seed to No. 6.

But the Trail Blazers drew some momentum from two regular-season victories against the Lakers, the latest last Sunday in Portland, in two overtimes. When it ended--actually, just before it ended--Ruben Patterson, their aggressive swingman, stood on the scorers' table and shook his fists gleefully at a crowd that an hour before had hurled Bill Walton dolls to the floor.

Several days later, he declared the Trail Blazers had cracked the mystery to beating the Lakers.

"We kind of have their number," he said.

The Lakers have won four consecutive postseason series from Portland, including a sweep in the first round last year. The year before, the Lakers won in seven games in the conference finals. "They get better," Portland Coach Maurice Cheeks said, "as the playoffs come around."

As for Patterson's estimation, Cheeks smiled and shook his head.

"You need to talk to him about that," he said. "If we win the series, then we have their number. Until that happens, we have to play smart, continuous basketball. They're the defending champs. We can't forget that."

That goes for everyone. Jackson called it an "intuitive mind-set," the recollection of games won before, series won before, and how.

"You can't replicate what you've done in the past," Jackson said. "What you try to do is build on the players you have right here."

On that level, Jackson said, "No doubt [we've] pointed toward this. This is the focal point of the year."

"Mainly," he added, "it's about anticipation, about not getting ahead of yourself, about playing each game for its own game, each play for its own play."

Finally, it's about what that all adds up to.

"Tomorrow," O'Neal said, "when I wake up, I'll be excited. I'll be excited."

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