Lakers may be back soon

Blazers show they'll be tough for any first-round playoff foe

San Antonio? Dallas? The Los Angeles Lakers?

Two days left in the NBA's regular season, and the Trail Blazers' playoff opponent is yet to be determined among the three teams below Sacramento in the Western Conference standings.

What we do know:

Portland is the No. 6 seed and will face the No. 3 seed, with the first two games of the best-of-five series on the road.

The Blazers carried an ominous 4-7 record since their March 23 high-water mark of 43-26 as they entered Sunday's home game against the Lakers. Portland showed more life against the two-time defending NBA champions in a 128-120 double-overtime victory that, at 3 hours and 19 minutes, was more like a miniseries.

'If we had won, they definitely would have seen us (in the first round),' Laker forward Rick Fox said. 'Wouldn't have bothered us. May have bothered them a little bit.'

Sunday's loss evidently bothered Laker coach Phil Jackson, who delivered a terse two-sentence statement to the media, complaining about twice 'giving the game away,' then sauntering off with 'That's all I have to say.'

Must have got into the craw of Shaquille O'Neal, who walked past reporters with nary a word.

Kobe Bryant talked, but he spoke in short sentences after again being harassed by self-proclaimed 'Kobe Stopper' Ruben Patterson. Bryant collected 23 points, seven rebounds and nine assists, so he wasn't exactly shut down. But the most valuable player of the All-Star Game managed only 15 shots in 51 minutes, making six, much of the time wearing Patterson like a Lycra suit.

'I would like to see (the Blazers) in the playoffs,' Bryant offered. Why? 'It would be a good challenge.'

Bryant seemed timid to attack Patterson on Sunday, and he committed six turnovers, many leading to fast-break baskets for the Blazers. Patterson and Bonzi Wells combined for 50 points and 19 rebounds, proving a nightmare for Laker defenders down low.

Jackson's big nightmare

Patterson, for one, gives himself the edge in the matchup with his more decorated opponent for Tinseltown.

'Me and Bonzi have an advantage on their two and three guys,' he said, referring to the shooting guard and small forward positions. 'I kind of wore (Bryant) down in the second half, just playing physical with him. It's a mental thing as much as anything. He knows I am going to have a plan against him, play hard and do what I can do.'

Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay says he would still favor the Lakers over the Blazers in a playoff series but says, 'Phil Jackson fears the Blazers more than anybody else. They have a lot of weapons and a lot of flexibility and the capacity to challenge the Lakers in a number of ways. That high screen-and-roll with (Damon) Stoudamire and (Rasheed) Wallace is tough to defend, and Bonzi and Ruben play so hard to the hoop.'

A Portland-Laker series is almost an annual rite, Fox said. 'It seems in nearly every case in the playoffs, we have to deal with the Trail Blazers somewhere along the road,' he said. 'We are prepared to do it again. It's almost like a trend in terms of a march toward the championship. You have to go through the better teams. They have been one of the teams in the second half that have played extremely well.

'Maybe we will go at it again.'

If it happens, expect a highly motivated, more mentally prepared Laker team.

'Bonzi is a strong post player; Rasheed is a very good inside/outside player,' Fox said. 'But we have played one-on-one matchups against them during the regular season. When we get in that war room and start talking about playoff basketball, we will have game plans for all of that stuff. It's not a situation we can't handle.'

O'Neal, bad toe and all, remains the most formidable weapon on either side. Shaq had 36 points and 11 rebounds on Sunday, though he wasn't his usual defensive presence.

Pippen makes a difference

In a playoff series against L.A., Washington coach Doug Collins said, the Blazers would greatly miss the presence of Arvydas Sabonis. 'They don't want to play the Lakers,' Collins said. 'They have no answer for Shaq at all. At least with Sabonis, they had a big body to keep him in front of you. They had their best chance to beat the Lakers when Sabonis was playing. If he could stay on the floor for 30 minutes, they had a shot. My guess now is, they would struggle.

'I like their chances best against Dallas, more of a freewheeling team without a lot of playoff experience, rebounding strength or defense.'

If Scottie Pippen can maintain his poise, Portland's chance to advance is enhanced. The 15-year veteran, suspended by the league for one game last week after a run-in with Dallas guard Nick Van Exel, exploded at a second-period call Sunday, threw the ball high into the stands and was ejected for the second time in five days. He was off to a great start, too, with 14 points in 20 minutes.

'Scottie makes that team go,' Collins said. 'When they had that great surge in the middle of the season, he was playing the best he had played in about three years. When he has the ball in his hands, he is aggressive and allows Stoudamire to operate on the wings. Put Scottie out there playing defense with Bonzi or Ruben, those guards are active. But if they lose a bit of the edge, which has happened in recent weeks, they are very vulnerable.'

Geoff Petrie, Sacramento's president of basketball operations, contends that the Lakers we have seen in recent weeks isn't the team that will appear once the playoffs begin.

'They are trying to work around Shaq's injury, trying to pace themselves some,' Petrie said. 'For all the problems they are having, they have won 70 percent of games. Their integrity will show up in the playoffs.

'Portland is dangerous,' Petrie said, 'but all eight playoff teams in the West are dangerous. The Blazers, he added, 'can put a very athletic, skilled team out there. They proved during the one stretch they can beat anybody anywhere.'

Beginning Saturday, the Blazers will get a chance to prove it. In L.A., San Antonio or Dallas.

NOTES: A post-game auction at the garden coordinated by 'Team Mates' Ñ Blazer wives, fiancees and significant others Ñ raised nearly $25,000 for 'Benefit of Honor,' a local charity that supports families of police and firefighters killed or disabled in the line of duty. Top item: A Pippen autographed jersey, which went for $2,000. É When Phoenix's Shawn Marion slammed a walk-off dunk in the final seconds of a December win over the Blazers, the Blazers were incensed, making it a rallying cry for their next meeting with the Suns. Then Patterson did the same in the closing seconds of Sunday's second overtime. The Lakers claimed it didn't bother them, but they will likely remember it if the teams square off in the playoffs. É Incredible statistic from Sunday's game: Portland held a 56-38 advantage in points in the paint. É Bryant said it 'scared the hell out of me' when fans tossed dozens of giveaway Bill Walton dolls on the floor to protest Pippen's ejection. É Portland's Shawn Kemp said he would favor playing Dallas as a first-round opponent. 'They are an offensive team, and defense matters most in the playoffs,' Kemp said. 'San Antonio is a tough matchup for us. If we play the Lakers, it has to be 48 minutes. Some nights, we don't come with that mentality.'

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