PORTLAND, April 29 (AP)
-- After dispatching Portland in three easy games, Shaquille O'Neal
says the selfish, bickering Los Angeles Lakers of a month ago are long gone.
| Shaquille O'Neal scored 25 points in the Lakers victory Sunday.|
| NBA.com TV highlights: 28.8+ |
And the happy bunch that replaced them is primed to continue its march toward a second straight NBA title.
"Everyone is on the same page now. We have a mission," O'Neal said after the Lakers beat the Trail Blazers 99-86 Sunday to sweep their first-round series.
"If we keep playing like this, it's going to be very hard to beat us," said O'Neal, who led the Lakers with 25 points and 15 rebounds. "We know what it takes to win a championship, because of the phenomenal season we had last year."
Los Angeles will play the Sacramento-Phoenix winner in the second round.
had 22 points and a playoff career-high nine assists, and Derek Fisher
added 17 points and eight rebounds for the Lakers, who began their surge by winning the last eight games of the regular season.
Portland, meanwhile, lost for the sixth straight time and 17th time in 25 games. The team with the highest payroll in NBA history -- $89.7 million -- faces an offseason of uncertainty. Coach Mike Dunleavy
could be fired, some players could be traded, and even general manager Bob Whitsitt's job isn't safe.
"I felt like we had too many challenges, too many obstacles to overcome," said Scottie Pippen
, whose goal of a seventh title was thwarted by jealousies, the departure of Shawn Kemp
for drug rehabilitation and a season-ending injury to Bonzi Wells
"This is the worst -- the worst thing I have ever had to deal with throughout my career," Pippen added. "It just wasn't a fun season for us. The outcome of it was just a testament to what we had been dealing with all season."
and Steve Smith
each scored 25 points to lead the Blazers, and Rasheed Wallace
had 13 rebounds but was a major disappointment on offense, missing 15 of 19 shots and scoring nine points.
The Lakers say they are better than last year's team, which blew a 3-1 series lead against the Blazers in the conference finals and had to overcome a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit to win Game 7.
"Our confidence is at an all-time high, and we caught a team that is not all the way together," Fisher said.
The teams split the season series 2-2, but Los Angeles utterly dominated the Blazers in the playoffs, outscoring them by 44 points and outrebounding them by 33.
"This series showed how far we've come, how much we've matured," Bryant said. "Last year we didn't have the know-how, but this year we have the experience. And in this series, at the end, we took the life out of them."
The Lakers beat the Blazers the same way they did the first two games -- by getting the ball to O'Neal, although he didn't see it much early on. O'Neal had just two shots in the first quarter -- nine fewer than Bryant -- and three rebounds.
O'Neal resumed his dominance in the second half, however, and the Blazers -- without suspended Dale Davis
and Stacey Augmon
-- couldn't handle him.
A hook shot by Arvydas Sabonis
a minute into the fourth quarter got Portland within 79-74, but O'Neal made two straight hooks to push the lead to nine. The Blazers missed six of their first seven shots and started to hear boos from the Rose Garden crowd.
Fisher's 3-pointer made it 87-74 with 9:01 left. O'Neal, who in his recent biography said he "owns" the 7-foot-3 Sabonis, provided the icing with a dunk that bounced off Sabonis' head.
"Sabonis did a nice job on Shaq in the first half," Lakers coach Phil Jackson
said. "(Shaq) got loose a little bit and, at some period, he hit his free throws (7-of-10), which is important for us, too."
Portland got within 67-66 on an open 3-pointer by Smith, but Fisher hit a 3-pointer, and the Lakers took a seven-point lead into the fourth quarter.
"In the fourth, once we got our lead, there was no turning back," O'Neal said.
The Blazers led early, and Stoudamire scored eight points in the first 4 minutes of the second quarter to boost the Blazers' lead to six, but the Lakers started getting O'Neal the ball.
His first strong move came when he got the ball deep against Sabonis, spun away from Wallace's double-team and emphatically dunked over Sabonis.
Bryant hit three straight shots to ignite a 9-0 run, and two free throws by Fisher just before halftime gave the Lakers a 54-47 lead.
Davis was suspended for throwing an elbow at the Lakers' Robert Horry
in Game 2, and Augmon was punished for coming off the bench during the altercation. ... O'Neal made 21 of 34 free throws in the series for 62 percent, compared with 51 percent during the regular season. ... Fisher had zero turnovers in 114 minutes in the series. ... Portland has been eliminated by the Lakers four of the last five years.