With the Portland Trail Blazers shoved aside in four games, the Los Angeles Lakers are waiting to find out if they play Seattle or Minnesota in the Western Conference semifinals.
The Sonics or Timberwolves will have to contend with Shaquille O'Neal at the top of his overpowering game and a young Lakers team oozing with confidence."If Shaq doesn't miss 22 games, we would easily have the best record in the NBA and he would be the MVP," Lakers coach Del Harris said Thursday night after O'Neal's 31 points and 15 rebounds carried Los Angeles to a 110-99 victory over the Blazers.
The game was not nearly as close as the final score made it seem. The Lakers took the lead for good in the first quarter, led by 18 in the second, 16 in the third and 20 in the fourth.
"Our defensive effort as a team was magnificent," Harris said. "And we outrebounded one of the best rebounding teams in the league. We shot 58 percent with 12 turnovers. It had to be one of our best games this year."
The series ended exactly as it did last year, with the Lakers ousting the Blazers in four games. Portland was a first-round casualty for the sixth consecutive year, and got no respect afterward from O'Neal, who hollered "The Rose Garden is closed for the summer" as he ran to the locker room.
"I really don't think those guys really thought they could play with us," he said. "They're a good team, but they're not that good. They're the perfect team at running their mouth and not backing it up. They've got to learn to just come out and play, rather than just talking all the time."
After the Lakers lost Game 3 on Tuesday, O'Neal blasted his teammates for failing to hit open shots. They came through this time.
Kobe Bryant had 13 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter, including two soaring dunks and an acrobatic driving layup, when the Lakers smashed a brief Portland rally.
Rick Fox had 16 points and nine rebounds for the Lakers, and Nick Van Exel added 14 points and seven assists.
"Shaq was unstoppable," Harris said. "He played outstanding on both ends. And Kobe, Rick and Nick gave us the support we lacked in Game 3."
The Lakers, who have won eight of nine games and 25 of 29 dating back to the regular season, held the Blazers to 39 percent shooting.
"That 16-point deficit at halftime was a huge number against a team like this," Portland coach Mike Dunleavy said. "I don't want to take anything away from the Lakers. They stepped up to the level that great playoff teams do when they're challenged. In some ways, though, this was the poorest game of the series for us."
Damon Stoudamire had 24 points in 46 minutes for Portland, and Brian Grant added 18 points and 12 rebounds. Rasheed Wallace scored 17, but most came when the game's outcome was determined. Arvydas Sabonis scored 15, but none in the fourth quarter.
Portland cut the lead to seven in the third quarter, 10 early in the fourth and, in a wild, desperate rush at the finish, six with a half-minute to go.
With O'Neal already on the bench anticipating victory, the Blazers scored 25 points in 3 1/2 minutes, cutting a 94-74 deficit to 105-99 with 32 seconds to go on 3-pointers by Wallace, Stoudamire and Walt Williams in 30 seconds.