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Lakers weren't at their best against Trail Blazers until it mattered the most in Game 3


The Lakers weren't exactly ordinary against the Portland Trail Blazers. Let's just say they opened the playoffs with two rather uneven performances in two victories against their favorite postseason punching bags.

Whenever the Lakers needed a key basket, they got one in Games 1 and 2 of the best-of-five series. Whenever they needed a critical defensive stop, they got one. When all else failed, the Trail Blazers' lack of composure helped get the Lakers by during two unremarkable victories before mildly amused crowds at Staples Center.

Then came Game 3, in a raucous environment at the Rose Garden.

The Trail Blazers surged, but the Lakers stayed within striking distance.

Portland delivered its best shot, but the Lakers absorbed it.

Blazer Maniacs bellowed for a victory, but the Lakers would not allow it.

Down, but not out, the Lakers gathered themselves one final time near the end of Game 3. Portland led, 91-89, with seconds to play when the Lakers came up with a play that would set the tone for their run to the three-peat.

Or more to the point, Kobe Bryant and Robert Horry would set the groundwork for a postseason based more on substance than style. They hooked up for the winning three-point basket, putting away the Trail Blazers for the third consecutive spring.

That Bryant and Horry would team up for the winning hoop should not have been surprising. It was the newfound depth of Bryant's game that amazed Kobe-watchers. Instead of forcing a shot in the face of a Portland double-team, Bryant smartly passed the ball from the paint to the perimeter.

Horry, stationed in the right-hand corner, made a three-point basket that was contested only by Portland point guard Damon Stoudamire, who charged at him from his spot on the Trail Blazer bench, bellowing in Horry's ear as he released the ball.


"It's cash," Bryant would later say. "He's done it so many times. It is cash."

More than Shaquille O'Neal's brutish play in the lane against Dale Davis, more than Bryant's highlight-reel moves around the basket, more than the Trail Blazers' lack of poise when things turned against them, the defining moment of the Lakers' first-round victory was Bryant's willingness to pass instead of shooting.

That has not often been the case. Bryant doesn't have a reputation as a player who looks to pass, no matter how open his teammates happen to be. He's a shooter, a scorer. He was going against form on April 28.

When Ruben Patterson, the self-proclaimed "Kobe-stopper," cut off Bryant's drive and Scottie Pippen abandoned Horry to make it a textbook double-team, Bryant made a mature decision to give up the ball for the good of the team.

The Lakers rejoiced with 2.1 seconds to play, but the Trail Blazers had one more chance to win and force Game 4. After a timeout, they inbounded the ball at half court. But an alert Horry intercepted Pippen's errant pass.

Game over.

Series over.

These weren't exactly harrowing moments, certainly not when compared to the tension-filled sequences to come. But the final seconds of Game 3 seemed to harden the Lakers for the more determined opponents that followed the Trail Blazers.

This was by no means a riveting series. In fact, it was all but over during a 27-second span in Game 2, when Davis drew two technical fouls and punted the ball into the seats, frustrated at having to contend with O'Neal in the post.

Patterson committed a flagrant foul against O'Neal in the same game and Pippen and Bonzi Wells fouled out, underscoring the Trail Blazers' inability to keep their emotions in check.

That set the stage for an expected thumping in Game 3 that never materialized. The Trail Blazers composed themselves and gave the Lakers fits until Bryant found Horry and Horry found the bottom of the basket.

Horry's presence in the series had been something of a surprise. He had been diagnosed 10 days before Game 3 with a hematoma, a pooling of blood, beneath his abdominal muscles, and it was uncertain how much he would play against Portland.

Horry would play 89 minutes, all in a reserve role, making two of eight three-point shots en route to averaging 6.3 points. He also would give the Lakers much-needed defensive support on Rasheed Wallace.

Samaki Walker replaced Horry at power forward in the Laker starting lineup, but he didn't stay there long in the next round, yielding to Horry during the conference semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs.

The bottom line against Portland was that the Lakers found ways to win. They weren't at their best, particularly because of injuries to Horry and a number of nagging ailments for O'Neal, but they did what was necessary to subdue the Trail Blazers and advanced to face the Spurs.

The Lakers deserved high marks precisely because they made the most of what was available against Portland.

They received no style points for plentiful lapses in effort and concentration, however.

In the end, they got what they needed from the Trail Blazers: three quick victories and a six-day rest before starting the next round. Horry and O'Neal had an opportunity to rest and recover, the better to prepare for Tim Duncan and the Spurs.

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