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Lakers’ Finale Is a Rob Story

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Maybe the Lakers weren’t vulnerable when they lost a few late-season games they wanted to win, and when they didn’t play well enough often enough to win the Pacific Division title. The Sacramento Kings hung that banner at Arco Arena this week.

And while they beat a bunch of understudies in King uniforms Wednesday night--the Kings played for self-preservation, the Lakers to further their various home-court advantages--the Lakers came upon yet another potential issue as three-peat season opened.

Early in the second quarter of the Lakers’ 109-95 victory at Staples Center, a win that clinched the No.3 seeding and a first-round series starting Sunday against the Portland Trail Blazers, power forward Robert Horry grabbed the left side of his stomach and walked from the floor.

The early diagnosis was a strained stomach muscle, hours after an ultrasound examination was normal. Horry is scheduled for an MRI exam today, only three days before the Lakers play the first of a best-of-five series against the Trail Blazers and their surly power forward, Rasheed Wallace.

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The Lakers have summoned Alex McKechnie, the abdominal specialist who mended Shaquille O’Neal two years ago.

“He doesn’t know what it is,” O’Neal, who swears by McKechnie, said of Horry. “They say hip flexor, he says stomach. They’ll figure it out. Alex will save the day. We’re going to get it straight.”

A long-term injury to Horry would seriously complicate the Laker postseason, their desire to become the fifth team to win as many as three consecutive NBA championships.

“We won’t think about that until it’s reality,” Laker Coach Phil Jackson said. “But you know it’s important for us to get Rob back. We do have some time. It’s Wednesday, rest through Sunday, and the second game is Thursday. Even one game is a critical thing, but we’ll have to play through it.”

It was the kind of question that drew long stares and sighs after the game.

Rick Fox smiled and called it, “Building the drama.”

“It doesn’t worry me,” Kobe Bryant said. “He’ll be fine. I have complete confidence in our staff that he’ll be ready on Sunday.”

Horry, normally one of the most accommodating Lakers, left without comment.

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Among the best sixth men in the league, Horry averaged 6.9 points and six rebounds in 26.7 minutes. He started 23 games, many when O’Neal was injured or suspended and Samaki Walker was forced to start at center.

More important, the postseason is Horry’s time of year. Composed in the most difficult circumstances, Horry won two titles in Houston and two more with the Lakers.

After another so-so regular season last year, Horry averaged 8.4 points against the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA Finals. His career scoring, rebounding and assist numbers all are higher in the playoffs than in the regular season, and he has made 37.1% of his postseason three-point shots.

Arguably the Lakers’ third-best player, behind O’Neal and Kobe Bryant (who both played 29 minutes and scored 21 points), Horry is a deft defender against the Western Conference’s most versatile players, the power forwards. Also, his threat as a three-point shooter draws potential double-teaming forwards to the perimeter, allowing O’Neal more room.

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Horry played the final two minutes of the first quarter and then about a minute in the second. He was on the defensive end when he cringed and put his hand to his side. Trainer Gary Vitti met him halfway to the bench, and they walked together through the tunnel to the Laker locker room.

The same thing happened late in Monday’s game against the Seattle SuperSonics, and Laker officials claimed Horry had a stomachache.

It was a predictably arduous game for the Lakers, who aren’t easily aroused when they feel superior. That’s why they needed a 14-foot Bryant jump shot at the buzzer to lead at halftime, 56-54, and why nothing felt particularly complete until the Kings packed up and the Lakers started to think about the Trail Blazers.

The Lakers won five of their last six games. It’s something short of the eight-game winning streak they rode in last season, but they seem reasonably confident, particularly given O’Neal’s energy for the past couple of weeks.

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“Just about that time,” he said. “About that time, that’s all.”

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Rest of the West

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