Forget Blazers Lakers are team to beat in playoffs


I am picking the Lakers, of course. As many of you know, I always pick the Lakers. Whether in war or peacetime. In sickness or health. Even in baseball season. I pick the Lakers to win the NBA playoffs because, well, it's a peculiar tradition of mine, like eating peanut butter and banana sandwiches for lunch, and because of Magic Johnson.

I pick them even knowing that Portland is the best team in the NBA. In fact, this year I pick them because Portland is the best team in the NBA.

If you haven't noticed, picking the chalk is the absolute wrong way to go these days. Or maybe you missed UNLV's game with Duke or the Oakland A's performance in the last World Series. We are in the winner-now-will-later-be-last era of sports.

Meaning: Portland, though loaded, though deeper than your typical Salman Rushdie novel, has virtually no chance. And since somebody has to win, why not the Lakers?

We know it won't be the Bullets. You can tell it's springtime because the dogwoods bloom and the Bullets are on vacation. The last tough thing any of the Bullets ever have to do in April is pay taxes. I think you can deduct this season as a business loss.

The annual postseason excitement for the Bullets is restricted to the draft lottery, which is too confusing to explain except to note that if you're a really bad team you get a predetermined number of ping-pong balls, and either you pick them out of a hat or you play table tennis with them in order to fix your place in the drafting process. But whatever happens, the Bullets always pick around 10th. If they somehow got the first pick, you can be sure Larry Johnson would immediately sign with the Toronto Argonauts.

As it turns out, to miss the playoffs in the East this season, you couldn't have been paying attention. The Chicago Jordans had the best record after changing their style from a one-man team to a two-man team. They will not win the NBA title. In fact, if the Detroit Pistons -- remember them? -- are healthy, the Jordans won't get to the finals. Yes, the Pistons are all feuding among themselves and Isiah Thomas' wrist is problematic, but if Thomas is OK, I think the old Pistons, if they don't beat themselves up first, will beat up the old Celtics and then take care of Chicago.

The problem with Chicago is that against a good defensive team, over a seven-game series, its offense is vulnerable. As great as Jordan is, Chicago has to be able to do something else offensively to win. You think Scottie Pippen can carry a team to an NBA title? Me neither.

So, let's go to the West, where there hasn't been a non-Lakers team to win the championship since Seattle in 1979. The West had six teams to win 50 games this season, and it had six teams to lose 50. Parity isn't everything. This year, they have five teams good enough to win it all.

The team that might come out of the West is San Antonio, which tied Phoenix for the Midwest Division title but won on fewer misses. The Spurs have David Robinson, who is the best center in the league, and Larry Brown, who is the best coach. Sean Elliott has come into his own this season, even as Terry Cummings struggled. They run well, and they defend well. How far they go may depend on how far point guard Mark Strickland is prepared to take them.

Another key for the Spurs is having to play the Lakers in the second round. But it could be worse. The winner of the Phoenix-Utah series (too close to call) gets to play Portland in the second round. Did I mention that the Trail Blazers were loaded? Utah has the Malones and John Stockton; Phoenix has Kevin Johnson, Tom Chambers and the X-Man. But neither team matches up with the Blazers, who start with Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter and Jerome Kersey and Buck Williams and Kevin Duckworth. And their second team probably finishes in the money in the East. They play good defense, they rebound very well and they have a lot of people -- this is important -- who are not afraid to score when it matters.

They do have a weakness, which is that Drexler and Kersey can get a little crazy on the offensive end. And Porter, though a fine player, is no Magic Johnson, or even Kevin Johnson or John Stockton.

Can the Lakers, who do have Magic Johnson but who haven't won in, gosh, three years now, win again?

It won't be easy. In the first round, the Lakers, who used to get a pushover after winning the division, instead get Houston, which had everyone excited for a while. The Rockets were the hottest team in the league for about a month. That was last month.

Next would come the Spurs. Robinson owns Vlade Divac's neighborhood and collects big-time rent every time they play. Divac, the mercurial center, must step up for the Lakers. So must Terry Teagle. So must Byron Scott, the great shooter and perennial little brother who just can't seem to accept stardom. But the Lakers have James Worthy and Sam Perkins. And it's weird, but for all their show time, the Lakers don't run that well anymore. What they do as well as anyone is play defense.

Do they play enough to stop the Spurs? Probably. Do they play enough to stop Portland? No. Which means that we'll have to see the Lakers turn it on to beat the Blazers, who lose a game about once a month. Going in, the Blazers look like they ought to run through the playoffs with no more than three losses. They have the bench to win it all. They get great rebounding from nearly every position. After coming close last year, they are positioned perfectly to win the title.

How can they miss? You start with Magic Johnson. That's what I always do. And as long as he's running the Lakers, I'm staying with them.

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