Season series: Los Angeles, 3-1 (Los Angeles, 104-87, on Oct. 31; Los Angeles, 97-92, on Nov. 18; Utah, 106-91, on March 28; Los Angeles, 102-98, on April 19.
Last appearance in Western Conference finals: In 1991, the Lakers beat Portland, 4-2, then lost to Chicago, 4-1, in the NBA Finals. Last year, Utah beat Houston, 4-2, then lost to Chicago, 4-2, in the NBA Finals.
Key players: Utah -- Karl Malone (25.6 ppg, 11.3 rpg in playoffs), John Stockton (11.6 ppg, 7.2 apg), Jeff Hornacek (11.7 ppg, 4.1 apg). Los Angeles -- Shaquille O'Neal (29.9 ppg, 10.6 rpg), Eddie Jones (17.9 ppg), Nick Van Exel (12.8 ppg, 4.2 apg).
Key matchup: Nick Van Exel vs. John Stockton, in a battle of two of the toughest point guards in the league. Stockton beats opponents with his precision passing, and Van Exel has emerged as one of the best clutch-shooting point guards in the game.
What Utah has to do to win: Do a better job against Shaquille O'Neal, who destroyed Seattle in the conference semifinals. The Jazz should have better success with its ability to throw different looks. Greg Ostertag can disrupt O'Neal with his size, while Karl Malone and Antoine Carr will get a chance to use their strength against the most dominant big man in the NBA.
What Los Angeles has to do to win: Continue to get contributions from the likes of Eddie Jones and Van Exel. O'Neal probably won't be able to dominate as he did against Seattle, so it's important for others to step forward.
Intangibles: O'Neal is playing as well as anybody in the game right now. In their last series, the Lakers learned to win while Kobe Bryant was sick, and it's important for the second-year guard/forward to simply fit in and not try to do too much. The Jazz dominated the Lakers in the conference semifinals last year, winning, 4-1.
( Prediction: Utah in six.
Pub Date: 5/16/98