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Head Start The Blazers and the Lakers were even after two games of a Western Conference final marked by psychological warfare

May 29, 2000
May 29, 2000

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May 29, 2000

Head Start The Blazers and the Lakers were even after two games of a Western Conference final marked by psychological warfare

Psychology students in search of possible term-paper topics need
look no further than the Western Conference finals between the
Los Angeles Lakers and the Portland Trail Blazers. During the
first two games of the teams' best-of-seven series, there was so
much talk of paranoia and phobias, so many apparent mental
blocks and inferiority complexes that it seemed the Lakers and
the Blazers were less concerned with getting into the lane than
with getting into one another's heads. Forget ex-jock
broadcasters; the analysts for this series should have at least
two diplomas and bill by the hour.

This is an article from the May 29, 2000 issue Original Layout

By the time the Blazers evened the series at 1-all with a 106-77
blowout in Game 2 at the Staples Center on Monday night, the
psychological war had been waged on several fronts. Even before
the series started, Lakers coach Phil Jackson had tried to
unnerve Portland forward Scottie Pippen by obliquely and
unfavorably comparing him to his old take-charge teammate,
Michael Jordan. Blazers coach Mike Dunleavy countered by having
Shaquille O'Neal intentionally fouled 11 times in a 3 1/2-minute
stretch of the fourth quarter of Game 1, hoping to enlarge
O'Neal's already sizable mental block at the free throw line.
But Portland had a center with a psychological hurdle of his
own: Arvydas Sabonis, who continued to show signs of being
Shaqophobic in L.A.'s 109-94 Game 1 win, in which O'Neal
outscored him 41-zip.

The Lakers would no doubt have tried to play mind games with
Blazers forward Rasheed Wallace--if they could have figured out
how his mind worked, which no one on his own team has done.
After being ejected for excessive glowering in the third quarter
of Game 1, Wallace kept his cool and heated up in the decisive
third period on Monday, during which he racked up 11 of his
game-high 29 points as Portland scored 28 points to Los
Angeles's eight, equaling the franchise's playoff low for a
quarter.

It was no surprise that Jackson, Pippen's coach of nine years
with the Chicago Bulls, made the first psychological move.
Jackson likes to play mind games as much for fun as for effect;
if O'Neal is the Big Aristotle, Jackson is the Big Sigmund. No
one knows better than Jackson that Pippen has never been
comfortable trying to carry a team, so Jackson tried to coax him
into assuming that role. "I think that if Scottie doesn't lead
[the Blazers] and take them by the horns, they're not going to
get by us," Jackson said before the series started. "I don't see
another leader on that club."

Jackson wasn't offering friendly advice; he was trying to lure
Pippen into letting his urge to burst out of Jordan's shadow get
the better of him. It didn't have the desired effect in the
first two games, in which Pippen had 40 points, 22 rebounds and
eight assists and played masterly stretches at point guard
during Monday's wipeout that gave the Blazers the homecourt--and
psychological--advantage going into Friday's Game 3 in Portland.
During warmups before the second half of Game 1, with the
Blazers trailing 63-42, Jackson sidled up to Pippen. "You can't
guard everybody," he said, referring to the way Pippen had been
double-teaming O'Neal and then racing out to the perimeter to
pick up someone else when Shaq passed. Pippen's answer: "I'm
going to try." Though it was precisely the type of hubristic
response that Jackson wanted to hear, it was clear by Pippen's
performance that he was, at least for the moment, immune to
Jackson's manipulations.

The Jackson-Pippen confrontation was pushed into the background
by the events of Game 1, in which Dunleavy employed his
unorthodox strategy against O'Neal, which wasn't so much
Hack-a-Shaq as Hug-a-Shaq. With the Trail Blazers behind 97-84
and 5:27 to play, Portland began grabbing O'Neal every time the
Lakers gained possession. O'Neal missed his first six free
throws, but the Blazers went cold as well and were unable to
narrow the Lakers' lead to less than nine. When Shaq made his
next seven foul shots, Portland's fate was sealed. Although he
referred to Dunleavy's gambit as "the ultimate sign of respect,"
O'Neal didn't appear to feel complimented when he glared at the
Blazers' coach with each successful free throw. L.A. fans were
more enraged than O'Neal--even Dunleavy's troops seemed sheepish
about the tactic--but his stratagem wasn't the abomination that
many observers felt it was. It was a reasonable attempt to make
the Lakers pay for O'Neal's weakness at the line, even if it did
turn the fourth quarter into a slow-moving marathon. "I can't
not do what I think is right just because people are going to
miss their cocktail reservations," said Dunleavy, who didn't
exactly resort to Hug-a-Shaq on Monday night, though O'Neal did
miss a mind-bending 12 of 17 free throws.

Portland wouldn't have had to take such desperate measures in
Game 1 had Sabonis not again become the incredible shrinking
7'3", 292-pounder in the presence of Shaq. Sabonis's teammates
stepped lightly around the topic, but there are indications that
he's intimidated by O'Neal's superior speed and power. For
example, instead of using his bulk against Shaq, Sabonis turns
into a finesse player, which he pulls off with about as much
success as a bull attempting ballet. In Game 1, Jackson put Shaq
back into the game with the outcome decided mainly to make sure
that Sabonis had that zero in the scoring column to sleep on,
and O'Neal essentially called Sabonis a wimp after the game:
"It's total respect for my game when one 7-footer has to call
two of his teammates and say, 'Come help me.'"

But Sabonis shed his inferiority complex in Game 2, setting the
tone by hitting a jump hook over O'Neal and blocking a shot
before the game was two minutes old. Who knows? Had Wallace been
less flammable, the Blazers might have won both games in L.A.,
where they had lost 16 straight playoff games entering the
series. After scoring 11 points in 16 minutes in Game 1, Wallace
picked up his second technical foul by childishly continuing to
stare down referee Ron Garretson for a supposed missed call
several minutes earlier. It was an unconscionable lapse in
self-control, especially given that Wallace, who set an NBA
record with 38 technicals and was ejected from six games during
the regular season, had vowed not to get thrown out during the
playoffs. Dunleavy has been searching for a way to rein in
Wallace all season, even calling Wallace's coach at Simon Gratz
High in Philadelphia, Bill Ellerbee, for advice. "It was nice to
have Rasheed in there for the whole ride this time," said
Dunleavy after Game 2. "It's pretty obvious that he recognized
how badly we need him on the floor."

As the series headed to Portland, however, it appeared that what
both teams needed most was a good therapist.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH COVER Postseason Wars LAKERS--BLAZERS Portland's Brian Grant and L.A.'s Kobe Bryant square off in the WestCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Monu-mental O'Neal had 41 points in L.A.'s Game 1 win, while Sabonis (11) and Wallace struggled to keep their wits about them.