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Trail Blazers vs. Lakers

Scouting Report

April 21, 2002|Tim Brown

STARTERS

In the minds of enough NBA people, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant are the two best players in the sport. It's a decent-sized trip from there to the other three Laker starters, and the worn knock on the Lakers is their lack of depth, but they've held up for two championships in a row now, maybe going on three. A hale O'Neal cannot be defended, and Bryant, while still maturing, has acquired a degree of selflessness at 23. Rasheed Wallace averaged 19.3 points and 8.2 rebounds against most of the league, 24 points and 10.3 rebounds against the Lakers. Bonzi Wells is the kind of athlete who bothers the Lakers, as well. But, while Scottie Pippen is sage and a veteran of numerous playoff battles, he has been harmless against the Lakers.

Edge: Lakers.

BENCH

Ruben Patterson, not good enough to be a Laker 21/2 years ago, was the difference in the two regular-season games won by the Trail Blazers, as much for his defense on Bryant as for his hell-bent effort around the basket. He never stops talking, a tendency the Trail Blazers find endearing and the Lakers find annoying, the basic qualifications of teammates versus foes. He also never stops playing, and so is the primary reason Bryant made 44% of his field-goal attempts against Portland, compared to 47.1% against the rest of the league. Portland added center Chris Dudley to its playoff roster, in part for the six fouls he brings against O'Neal. The Lakers counter off the bench with Robert Horry, who averaged 10.3 points and made seven of 16 three-point attempts in four games--one of them a start--against the Trail Blazers, and Devean George, an athletic defender against the athletic Trail Blazers.

Edge: Trail Blazers.

OFFENSE

Though O'Neal, their top scorer, sat out 15 games, the Lakers ranked third in the league in scoring and sixth in field-goal percentage. The Trail Blazers were 11th in scoring and ninth in field-goal percentage. The Lakers run what is supposed to be an equal-opportunity offense, but O'Neal and Bryant get the large percentage of the shots. O'Neal led the league in shooting percentage for the fifth consecutive season and the sixth time in his 10-year career. After a strong first half, during which he made nearly half of his attempts, Bryant finished at 46.9%, still the best shooting percentage of his career. Derek Fisher pressed his offense in the second half and, as a three-point shooter, has become worrisome for defenses. Wallace, when focused, is one of the best scoring power forwards in the game. Wells is aggressive, particularly from the perimeter, where he hurt the Lakers with two three-pointers last Sunday in Portland. From his role as a point forward, Pippen runs the offense at least as well as Damon Stoudamire.

Edge: Lakers.

DEFENSE

Despite all the talk about defensive meltdowns, and there were quite a few, the Lakers held their opponents to a field-goal percentage of 42.4, lowest in the league and well below their numbers from last season. That being said, they also gave up 94.1 points per game, high considering the shooting percentage. The reason: The Lakers gave up nearly 83 shots per game, 10th-most in the league. That's plenty of second and third chances, and that means not enough defensive rebounds for a team that's best in its slow-down, half-court offense. O'Neal is not as active defensively when his toe is throbbing, and that allows more penetration than usual. How limited was O'Neal? Memphis rookie Pau Gasol blocked more shots per game. The Trail Blazers gave up 93.7 points per game. Wallace and Dale Davis are shot blockers, but not against O'Neal.

Edge: Lakers.

COACHING

Maurice Cheeks, who was in 133 playoff games as a player, will coach his first one today. Phil Jackson, who played in 67, will coach his 192nd today. He has been the coach for eight of the last 10 NBA champions, six in Chicago and the last two in Los Angeles. It hasn't hurt that he's handed the basketball to either Michael Jordan or Shaquille O'Neal in every one, but his been-there-done-that cool invariably spills over to his players.

Edge: Lakers.

KEY TO THE SERIES

The schedule. As long as the NBA and NBC insist on airing out the schedule to near football-like proportions, O'Neal can ease on and off the anti-inflammatories, and his toe will recover, and his wrist will be strong. The series goes Sunday-Thursday-Sunday-Wednesday. There is so much time between games, the Trail Blazers were planning on returning to Portland between Games 1 and 2, and the Lakers were considering doing the same between Games 3 and 4, assuming the fourth game is necessary. The Lakers are the veteran team and are more likely to benefit from the down time.

Edge: Lakers.

PREDICTION

The Lakers in 3.

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