So close and yet . . . so close.
After traveling through a season of injuries and trades and emotional wins and losses to lottery teams, the Lakers got to the 82nd and final game, the one that would determine their playoff opponent, and then found the answer staring back at them. Maybe even staring down at them.
It's the Portland Trail Blazers, whose 100-96 victory before 21,538 at the Rose Garden on Sunday cost the Lakers their first Pacific Division title since 1990.
Actually, it cost them more. It cost them the chance to play the Phoenix Suns in the best-of-five series that opens Friday at the Forum. Instead, they get the Trail Blazers. The same Trail Blazers who won the season series, 3-1.
The loss, sealed when Shaquille O'Neal missed two free throws in a two-point game with 1.2 seconds remaining, turned the Pacific title back to the Seattle SuperSonics, dropping the Lakers from No. 2 in the Western Conference to No. 4 in the process. The Houston Rockets would have gotten No. 3 no matter what the Lakers did Sunday.
"We would like to have won the division championship," Coach Del Harris said. "But had we won the division championship, it wouldn't have changed anything. We would have been like everybody else in the playoffs: zero-zero. At least our preparation is made easier because we have the team we just had a couple of days with."
There is the bright side. Beyond that, the reaches really begin.
The Lakers never tried to downplay the significance of Sunday's game, well aware that their 16th Pacific title would have been a significant accomplishment even for an organization that measures itself by far loftier standards. The events of the previous months, especially since mid-February, when the doubters around the league came as fast as the injuries, made it so.
Then, not just getting as close as the final day, but the final seconds. Only to fall short.
"It's very disappointing," Robert Horry said. "We wanted to win the title so bad. But it wasn't just this one game. We messed up a lot of games. We can't talk like this is the game that cost us. It just stands out because it's the last one."
Maybe even because of how it happened, with the Lakers showing their resiliency again, coming from 14 points down late in the second quarter to challenge. They even took the lead for the first time at 79-78 with 9:51 remaining, pushed the cushion to as many as six, and then went back and forth with the Trail Blazers for the next few minutes.
But when Arvydas Sabonis connected on a three-pointer with 3:27 left--one of the many scouting nightmares for the Lakers: what to do with a 7-foot-3, 292-pound center who acts like a guard--the Trail Blazers had reclaimed the lead for good. The Lakers were within striking distance the rest of the way, as close as one point on four separate occasions, but were never able to retake the mountain.
O'Neal at the line probably wouldn't rate as the Lakers' best chance, but it was their last chance. Portland ahead, 98-96, with 1.2 seconds showing. The superstar center, fouled before he could get a shot off inside, going to the line with the opportunity to at least temporarily save the Pacific by forcing overtime, with the opportunity to continue his recent hot streak there and alter a reputation.
"He's been hitting his free throws lately," Trail Blazer Clifford Robinson said. "But at the same time, in that situation, we're going to foul him."
Said Kenny Anderson: "It would have been a miracle if he made both of those. It would have started raining elephants outside."
O'Neal stepped to the line near the Trail Blazer bench, fans behind the basket waving their arms and towels and banners.
And then Portland called timeout.
Play resumed, and O'Neal got the ball. Then he missed badly, long and to the right.
That meant the Lakers had to get the rebound off his second miss and put up a quick shot. Instead, the Trail Blazers controlled, Robinson was fouled and made two free throws with 0.9 left for the final margin.
"I just missed 'em," said O'Neal, who had 24 points. "But the good thing about me is I always come back strong. This isn't going to break me."
The Trail Blazers, and the city of Portland, are safe at least for the moment. No O'Neal until Friday. No elephants.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
NBA PLAYOFF SCHEDULES
Lakers vs. Portland
SERIES AT A GLANCE
* Game 1: Friday at Forum, 7:30 p.m.
* Game 2: Sunday at Forum, Noon
* Game 3: April 30 at Portland, 7:30 p.m.
* Game 4: May 2 at Portland, TBA*
* Game 5: May 4 at Forum, TBA*
* if necessary
Clippers vs. Utah
SERIES AT A GLANCE
* Game 1: Thursday at Utah, 7:30 p.m.
* Game 2: Saturday at Utah, 5:30 p.m.
* Game 3: April 28 at Sports Arena, 7:30 p.m.
* Game 4: April 30 at Sports Arena, TBA*
* Game 5: May 4 at Utah, TBA*
* if necessary
PLAYOFF BRACKET: C6