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Will Blazers come off as hacks in Chapter 2?


LOS ANGELES - It was only the first game of the NBA Western Conference finals, yet the Portland Trail Blazers looked like a team fighting desperately to survive.

Coach Mike Dunleavy all but admitted that he had no answer for league Most Valuable Player Shaquille O'Neal, instituting an if-you-can't-beat-him-foul-him strategy that was almost as ineffective as it was embarrassing.

Seven-foot center Arvydas Sabonis played 33 minutes and had the same number of points as the Blazers have victories in this much-anticipated best-of-seven series - which resumes tonight with Game2 at the Staples Center. He did eventually get one rebound, but you get the idea.

The Blazers were supposed to be the anti-Lakers, the team that could counter all that star power with balance and depth and all those other things you talk about when you don't have O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. Instead, there were stretches when they looked more like the Lakers' anti-rivals - the beleaguered Los Angeles Clippers - in Game1 on Saturday.

Dunleavy went to "hack-a-Shaq" in the fourth quarter and turned an interesting, if one-sided, series opener into a bit of a farce. He won't rule out trying to take advantage of O'Neal's well-known inability to make free throws with a similar strategy tonight, which is bad news for all those Los Angeles sports fans who like to be in bed by 10.

Forward Rasheed Wallace, who could have been a big factor when the Blazers closed within nine points in the fourth quarter Saturday, got himself thrown out of the game midway through the third quarter for staring down diminutive referee Ron Garretson.

Wallace has to know that if he loses his cool again tonight, the Blazers could pay for his lack of self-control with a short series, but since he set an NBA record with 38 technical fouls during the regular season - and has committed seven more in the first 10 games of the postseason - it's probably fair to assume that there will be a few more Dennis Rodman moments before this thing is over.

If the Blazers hope to win this four-ring circus, they're eventually going to have to get past the sideshows. The Lakers already have proven they are too good to be trifled with.

Perhaps the most discouraging aspect of Game1 for the Blazers was the way their much-ballyhooed bench was overshadowed by the Lakers' reserves, who helped break the game open in the second quarter.

Remember, it is the Blazers' great depth that allows them to imagine themselves in the NBA Finals. It is that depth that allowed the oddsmakers to consider them a real threat to knock off a Lakers team built largely around O'Neal, Bryant and Glen Rice.

Instead, it was the Lakers' sixth man, Robert Horry, who pumped in three of four three-point shots while the Blazers were collapsing on O'Neal and Bryant in the second quarter of Game1. The Lakers outscored Portland, 37-16, on the hot shooting of Horry and fellow reserves Brian Shaw and Rick Fox."We're deeper than we thought," said Bryant, whose 13 points in the opener were barely half his playoff average. "But the bench has been doing a nice job for us all playoffs long, coming in and hitting big shots for us and getting the momentum going."

The Blazers clearly underestimated the Lakers' ability to score away from O'Neal and Bryant, who have accounted for more than 50 percent of the club's scoring during the playoffs."In the second quarter, they outscored us by 21 points, and that's the game," said Blazers guard Bonzi Wells. "We just have to come out and play hard in all four quarters. We had some trap schemes leaving guys open and we can't do that anymore. We have to play everybody straight up and make them be great one-on-one players."

If that is the strategy in Game2, look for Bryant to light up the Staples Center tonight.

Portland figures to make significant defensive adjustments, perhaps moving veteran Scottie Pippen into a more defined defensive role after he spent Game1 trying to cover everyone on the court."Pippen is obviously a key part of their defense, and I'm curious to see what they're going to do with [guard] Damon Stoudamire," Bryant said. "Whether they will keep him on me or switch him to Harp [Ron Harper] and place Pippen on me or Glen, which cancels Scottie's ability to roam around defensively."

Dunleavy isn't saying, but he knows the adjustments he makes tonight could decide whether the Blazers are going to be in this series for the long run.

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