No matter what, Phil Jackson and his Laker players insisted Monday, one game in February won’t win a championship or start a dynasty, or even make everybody feel good for very long.
Even if Shaquille O’Neal makes 20 free throws or if Portland picks up 30 front-line fouls or if Damon Stoudamire runs through the Lakers’ legs all night . . .
No matter what happens tonight in Portland, in the Lakers’ final and most anticipated regular-season game with the Trail Blazers, the Lakers will fly home for a game against Vancouver on Wednesday, then play three more games in five days after that.
No big deal. Except, of course, for one thing, something as big as the Pacific:
“I think that the team that wins this game tomorrow night more than likely will win the division,” Jackson said.
Oh. And probably the No. 1-seeding in the Western Conference playoffs too.
The twin Pacific Division powerhouses have the same records, 45-11, best in the NBA by 6 1/2 games; the same current winning streaks, 11 games, and the same goals, winning the championship.
They are their only rivals. Below them is NBA mediocrity.
What’s at stake tonight at the Rose Garden--where the Lakers have lost the last seven regular-season meetings, although they have won two playoff games there in the last three seasons--is not just a game in the standings but probably the mental edge heading into the stretch drive as well.
Starting with Portland’s victory over the Lakers Jan. 22 at Staples Center, the Trail Blazers have won 16 of their last 17 games, a surge Jackson believes was fueled by defeating the Lakers.
The Laker players, however, made certain not to build this game up so high that a crash, win or lose, is inevitable.
“It’s not going to make or break our season,” O’Neal said. “I’m sure it’s not going to make or break their season, whatever happens. But we would like to go up there and get a win.”
Of course, the largest factor in this game is O’Neal, who is the Lakers’ ultimate answer to the Trail Blazers’ expensive collection of front-court talent, which ranges from huge (Arvydas Sabonis) to young and talented (Rasheed Wallace, Jermaine O’Neal) to dinged up but respected (Brian Grant) to merely there to foul (Joe Kleine, Antonio Harvey).
And, now that Shaq has cooled off at the free-throw line--he has made 12 of his last 31 after a four-game, 70% hot streak--there is certainly the incentive to see if he can beat them there, instead of on slam dunks.
In the Lakers’ last trip to Portland, Shaquille O’Neal was thrown out in the third quarter after his violent reaction to having been fouled hard twice by Jermaine O’Neal.
“There’s a difference between dirty and physicalness,” the Lakers’ O’Neal said. “As long as the referees keep it clean. . . . But I won’t tolerate any nonsense. I’ll do whatever is necessary to protect myself.”
Jackson did not disagree with the suggestion that O’Neal’s free-throw shooting, which until recently looked so much smoother and rhythmic, probably would play a huge part in this game.
“In Portland, he’s going to get foul shots,” Jackson said. “They’re going to foul him and he’s got to be able to go to the line on the road and complete them.”
Said Laker forward Rick Fox: “I hope we’re in a situation that he’s challenged that way and he steps up to meet the challenge and we come out with the victory. Because from that, we’d build ultimate confidence.”
Meanwhile, with all the talk about Portland being the “best team money can buy,” as Jackson termed them earlier this season, and about all of their huge, athletic bodies, and about Scottie Pippen knowing the Laker offense better than any of the Lakers, Jackson sent out a signal that he is getting ready for the playoffs.
In direct contrast to the Lakers, who rely on extensive play and production by O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, the Trail Blazers have nine players who average more than 17 minutes and nobody who averages more than 15.4 points.
“I don’t really see their depth being that overwhelming, in reality,” Jackson said. “Detlef Schrempf obviously is a small forward, along with Stacey Augmon, they’ve got depth everywhere. But I don’t think it’s any more concentrated at the power positions than it is anywhere else. . . .
“I think they’re a great team. They’ve been well put together and they’ve had a lot of liberty at backing them up at great positions. I love their players and the opportunities.
"[But] maybe it’s easier to have guys out there on the floor, though, that you know what you’re going to get out of them for the certain amount of time that you play them.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Lakers at Portland
Channel 9, TNT
“I think that the team that wins this game...more than likely will win the division.” Phil Jackson, Laker coach
LAKERS PORTLAND 45-11 Record 45-11 1st (tie) NBA rank 1st (tie) 11 Win streak 11 25-4 Home record 23-3 20-7 Road record 22-8 99.6 Scoring avg. 97.7 90.6 Avg. points allowed 89.6
The winner gets inside track for home-court advantage in the playoffs, which is a considerable edge. Home teams in playoff series since 1990-91:
1990-91: 10-5, .667
1991-92: 14-1, .933
1992-93: 11-4, .733
1993-94: 11-4, .733
1994-95: 8-7, .533
1995-96: 11-4, .733
1996-97: 15-0, 100.0
1997-98: 11-4, .733
1999: 10-5, .667
Total: 101-34, .748
Note: Since 1990-91, three teams without home-court advantage have won the NBA title.