LOS ANGELES - The NBA belongs to the hip-hop generation, but its Western Conference finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers now are strictly about rhythm and blues.
After winning the last two games on the road to go up 3-1 in this best-of-seven series, the Lakers have clearly found their rhythm. How else do you explain Shaquille O'Neal making nine straight free throws in Game 4 Sunday in Portland?
And after losing both games at the Rose Garden last weekend, the Trail Blazers are going through a case of deja blue for the second straight season. How will coach Mike Dunleavy explain it if his talented team only wins once this year after being swept by the San Antonio Spurs last year?
On the brink of their first appearance in the NBA Finals since 1991, the Lakers took to the court at the laid-back Staples Center last night hoping to generate the kind of passion that Jack Nicholson and the rest of the team's celebrity fans didn't quite muster in a 29-point loss here in Game 2.
'This team has continually grown, little by little, in each [playoff] series," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said before practice Monday. "And I kept telling them, they are getting there. They're not there yet. They're getting to the point where they can start thinking of themselves as a team that's invincible and decide to be a team that can be worthy of moving into that final round."
The Lakers might not be invincible, but they certainly don't have the same sense of vulnerability that the Sacramento Kings discovered in winning their two home games in opening series; that the Phoenix Suns found with their own blowout victory in Game 4 of the conference semifinals.
When a team comes back from a 10-point halftime deficit on the road, then overcomes another slow start (down 25-16 after the first quarter) by shooting 61 percent in the third quarter of one game and 70 percent in the third quarter of the other, it can be a little disheartening for their opponents.
That's what the Lakers did to the Trail Blazers in Portland.
'They were able to score by finding the holes in our defense," point guard Damon Stoudamire said after Game 4. "In the third quarter, me and Scottie [Pippen]and Steve [Smith] were all in the right spot. But it was hard to keep scoring and get back on defense, especially against guys like [Glen] Rice."
The Trail Blazers had trouble stopping Rice, who came out of a playoff-long shooting slump by scoring 21 points on his 33rd birthday. They couldn't contain Ron Harper, who had a playoff-high 18 and, after a slow start, Kobe Bryant, who also finished with 18.
But the vaunted triangle offense that ran the Trail Blazers around in circles - is that geometrically possible? - starts and ends with O'Neal, whose 25 points included his much talked about perfect free-throw shooting. Dunleavy went to "Hack-A-Shaq" once, midway through the fourth quarter. It was too late.
'They are a really good team when Shaq is making his free throws," said Pippen, whose offensive struggles continued. "It makes him real dominant and you have to respect that. When he makes his free throws, he is going to be much more aggressive. His presence was definitely felt [Sunday]."
A victory last night would make the Lakers and their frustrated fans forget about the postseason disappointments in recent years. Their own sweep at the hands of the Spurs in last year's conference semifinals. Another sweep, by the Utah Jazz, in the conference finals two years ago.
The list also includes a string of opening-round defeats in 1992, 1993 and 1996, the year before O'Neal joined the team.
'This is a new time," O'Neal said at practice Wednesday. "We have new players, we have a new regime. Our congress is much stronger. In the past, we had a strong army, but the congress wasn't strong enough. The decision-making wasn't strong enough. Now everybody's strong."
The same can't be said for the Trail Blazers, who seemed to have control of the series when they left here last week and now are fighting to prolong their season with another game Friday night in Portland. They didn't sound like a confident bunch after Game 4.
"At least we've won one game this time instead of being down 3-0," said Stoudamire, thinking about last year's disappointment. "We have to take the mind-set that it's one game at a time. We just have to let it all out."
After all, that's what rhythm-and-blues is all about.