PORTLAND, Ore. - The underlying theme of this year's NBA Western Conference finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers has been the respective leadership on each team. Even before the series began, Lakers coach Phil Jackson questioned whether the Trail Blazers had one in Scottie Pippen.
Jackson also wondered if his team had a leader, too. Or was that two?
The outcome of Friday night's Game3 at the Rose Garden - a93-91 victory for the Lakers - did more than give the Lakers a two games to one lead and the home-court advantage that had been lost in an embarrassing29-point defeat to the Trail Blazers in Game 2 Monday night in Los Angeles.
It also demonstrated that having two young stars and an experienced, championship-hardened veteran willing to take the big shots and make the big defensive stops is better than having one venerable star who proved he can't be everywhere and do everything.
As hard as Pippen tried to lead Portland back from a nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter after the Trail Blazers had blown a14-point lead in the first half, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant - not to mention Ron Harper, who hit the game-winner - wound up doing more for the Lakers.
After a quiet first half in which he scored justeight points on six shots, O'Neal finished with26points and12rebounds to lead the Lakers in their stirring comeback. After keeping the Lakers within10 at halftime by scoring18 of his25points, Bryant saved his biggest play for defense.
"This is the first time that Shaq and I have had to lead the team together in the playoffs," said Bryant, whose offensive production matched his total from the first two games and silenced those who questioned whether that the21-year-old guard was ready to take on such a role. "We're not going to let our teammates down."
Harper's wide-open baseline jumper with29.9seconds to play, coming off a pass out of a double team from Bryant, was reminiscent of similar shots taken with Chicago by John Paxson against Phoenix in1993 and Steve Kerr in1997 against Utah. But it was Bryant's block of Arvydas Sabonis in the waning seconds that saved the game.
It was the kind of play Bryant has made a few times this season - he did the same thing against Allen Iverson on national television earlier in the year - but never on such a large stage. Or against such a large man, given that the7-foot-3,292-pound Sabonis haseight inches and about80pounds on Bryant.
"I never blocked a 7-foot-3 guy before," Bryant said with a laugh.
It was also the kind of play that might have exposed Portland's lack of a true go-to guy. Where was Pippen, who had posted up Bryant with1:14 remaining to bring the Trail Blazers back to tie the score at91? Where was Rasheed Wallace, who had madenine of11 shots but had hurt his left ankle a few minutes before?
Why did it come down to Sabonis? The aging center had played well in the first half, scoringnine points, but had missed the only two shots he had taken in the second half. While Portland coach Mike Dunleavy decided to forgo a timeout after a steal and Damon Stoudamire to drive, why Sabonis? And why did he pass up a momentarily open15-footer to plow down the lane?
"I needed toshootball, and that's it," Sabonis said yesterday.
Pippen seemed to be asking himself the same questions. The frustration that boiled over during the game, when he shoved Lakers forward Rick Fox with the ball as the teams were about to take a fourth-quarter timeout, and afterward, when he reportedly cleared a table filled with drinks, was still evident yesterday.
Asked whether he wanted the ball in his hands, Pippen said, "We all wanted it. I didn't get it. It was frustrating in that we didn't get a [good] shot at the basket."
It might point to what Jackson had said before the series, something that has been said about the Trail Blazers all season. They had the deepest roster in the league, the highest payroll and perhaps the most talent top to bottom. Yet they lack a clear leader who will take over - particularly on offense.
"I think they have a lot of go-to guys," Bryant said. "Sometimes that can hurt you, sometimes that can help you. Us, we know what we're going to do in certain situations down the stretch."
A few hours before Game3, Bryant was asked who was providing the leading for the Lakers in the locker room.
"Phil's been the guy who's kind of leading us right now," said Bryant. "Out on the floor, it will probably be me, it will probably be Shaquille, it will probably be Harp."
Make that three for the Lakers and one - Pippen - for the Trail Blazers.
With another victory for the Lakers here, that could also represent how the Western Conference finals stand after today.
NOTES: Wallace said that his left ankle, which he mildly sprained in the second half Friday night, felt better yesterday and that he should be ready for Game4. Lakers guard Brian Shaw won't be. He was suspended yesterday for one game by the NBA. NBC analyst Doug Collins had made a point during the telecast that Shaw came on the floor during the confrontation between Pippen and Fox. Shaw contends that a timeout had already been called and he was allowed to be on the court.