And so it's the Lakers. Again. But for the Portland Trail Blazers, I don't think this is the automatic playoff death sentence it's been in some past years.
Before you ask me to take a saliva test, let me tell you that I think this is the most beatable Los Angeles Laker team we've seen in a few seasons, especially if forward Robert Horry is hurt and unable to play at full strength in the series. Without Horry, the Lakers really are just a two-man team.
Not that those two, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, aren't the two best players in the league.
The thing is, with the new defensive rules in the NBA, there is a much better chance of controlling O'Neal and Bryant.
I've been disappointed this year that we haven't seen coaches take full advantage of the rules that allow limited zone defense. I believe that part of the reason they haven't is that the 82-game schedule doesn't allow for much practice time and makes it difficult to zero in on one particular opponent.
The playoffs, though, will be different.
I think you will see teams, with several days off between games, take their defensive strategies to a higher level. Against O'Neal, for example, there is no excuse not to get consistent double-teams on him the whole game.
The Lakers do not have a supporting cast of the quality that they've featured in the past, and the Blazers can load up their defense against the Big Two without worrying about the league's old illegal defense rules. You can play in front of Shaq and behind him most of the game if you're smart about it.
Of course, to have any chance of winning, the Blazers will need to do two things: play hard and play intelligently.
Some of this season, they've played hard. When they did, their defense caused turnovers, which fueled their fast break. When they've not played hard, they played poor perimeter defense and didn't look to help each other inside. Will they play hard? Probably, but I wouldn't bet the farm on it.
Will they play with intelligence? It's doubtful. They often don't. Coach Maurice Cheeks continues to double-talk about how he isn't worried if his team gets technical fouls unless they cost them games Ñ which they frequently do. The team rationalizes, somehow, that the technicals are just an indication that they're playing with high emotion.
That's bunk, of course. The Blazers often resemble a psycho ward in shorts. It's Team Nervous Breakdown. You can't expect to give away two, three, four points a game in the playoffs on technical fouls and win close games any more than you can expect to perform at your best while you're blaming someone else (the referees) for everything that's going wrong around you.
I can't figure out which hurts them most, actually Ñ the points they lose off the technical fouls, the energy they expend complaining or the focus they lose while blaming someone else for their poor play.
That said, the Blazers have a real chance in this series. The Lakers have not been themselves for much of this season, and this is probably the last year of the best-of-five format in the first round. After this season, the NBA supposedly will go to best-of-seven in all rounds.
It's entirely possible for Portland to win three games against the Lakers. It won't be easy, but it can be done. You'd want to steal one of the first two games in Los Angeles and then be able to hold the fort in the Rose Garden.
The Blazers just need to play hard, play smart and keep their cool. Well, actually, that does sound like a tall order for this unpredictable team, doesn't it?