ANTOINE CARR OF the Utah Jazz said the upcoming NBA Western Conference finals will be like an episode of "The Jerry Springer Show."

If that were true, the title would be, "Help! Some Mountain Men in Ugly Shorts Can't Keep Their Hands Off Me!"While the Lakers were telling their story, the Jazz would sprint out from backstage and sucker-punch them.

With John Stockton using a chair.

Seriously.

This series is not about who can stop Shaquille O'Neal, or who can match up with Karl Malone.

It's about something for which there are no statistics, only scrapes, welts and wills.

It's about how a team with better athletes handles a team with better cheaters.

Anybody who has watched Stockton shove somebody down the lane, or Malone tackle somebody under the basket, understands which team is which.

The Lakers know it. The entire NBA knows it. . . .

Do the Lakers also cheat? Of course they do.

O'Neal is no saint in the paint. The Lakers' flow offense also includes flowing elbows and shoulders.

The Lakers cheat and whine like any 61-win team must do.

But they haven't mastered it the way the Jazz has. Nobody has. Nobody is this experienced, this smart, this good.

This is not to say Jazz players are dirty. To call them dirty would be to imply that their object is injury.

For the most part, they are not bad guys. They don't push their opponents 20 feet on screen plays because they want to injure them. They don't kick them in the lane because they want to see blood.

They do all this, and much more that only the players see, because they will do anything to win.

Bill Plaschke

Los Angeles Times

SHAQUILLE O'NEAL has had a bodyguard for a long time, but it wasn't until recently he started employing an inner cop.

Now that O'Neal is keeping his emotions at arm's length, there may be no end to the destruction he and the Lakers are able to wreak against Utah in the Western Conference finals.

Composure is going to be a key component in the best-of-seven series, which gets under way Saturday in Salt Lake City. The Lakers and the Jazz are about as chummy as India and Pakistan. Since before they met in their regular-season finale at the Forum, each team has been warily circling the other in anticipation of another battle in what has become a fierce turf war.

It's largely up to O'Neal to see that things don't get bloody these next two weeks.

The Jazz is the reigning Western superpower, having blitzed the Lakers in five games in the second round of the playoffs last year on its way to a runner-up finish to Chicago. O'Neal, the Lakers court general, was hobbled in that series by a bum knee and hurt himself further by failing to fend off his frustrations, which were fueled by a few too many of Karl Malone's elbows and Greg Ostertag's body slams and verbal salvos.

O'Neal was a veritable ticking time bomb for the next five months. His emotions detonated at the morning shootaround before the Lakers' season opener against the Jazz at the Forum when he and Ostertag exchanged words in a dialogue O'Neal punctuated with a hard slap that sent Ostertag sprawling.

Karen Crouse

Los Angeles Daily News

AS THE NBA heads into the next millenium in search of a successor to Michael Jordan, league commissioner David Stern hasn't sent any search parties out to find a suitable replacement.

"We just send someone to L.A.," Stern joked a few months ago.

Considering the way Shaquille O'Neal has roared through the 1998 playoffs, no one would blame Stern if he was serious.

Days before the Los Angeles Lakers blocked Seattle's path to the Western Conference finals on Tuesday, O'Neal was the dominant topic of discussion around the NBA.

His presence, patience and complete annihilation of every SuperSonics player forced to confront him amazed the basketball world and pushed Seattle coach George Karl to contemplate a future of unemployment.

No one could stop Shaq.

Stephen A. Smith

Knight Ridder Newspapers

ONCE UPON A time, it was the other way around.

It was age and guile vs. youth and ambition, except it was the Utah Jazz that were the kids - including the burgeoning superstar everyone once fouled on purpose - and the Lakers who had the veterans, who ruled by dint of experience and iron will as much as talent.

It was 10 years ago, the spring of 1988, when the Lakers were trying to fulfill Pat Riley's guarantee of the first back-to-back titles in 19 years, when they ran into a buzz saw and made a new rival for life.

The Lakers won the Western Conference semifinals in seven games, but not before then-Jazz coach Frank Layden, a 340-pound lounge act, one-upped Dr. Sigmund Riley in psychological ploys and Layden's team scared Riley's half to death.

Mark Heisler

Los Angeles Times