- The Washington Times - Friday, April 19, 2002

LOS ANGELES The real season is about to start for the two-time defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers, who cranked up their game to unprecedented heights in the playoffs last year.

The concern over one of the world's biggest big toes should be tempered by the fact that the postseason, especially the first round, means extra rest. The Lakers, who played 36 games in the season's final 65 days, will have three full days off before facing the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday at Staples Center. Game 2 of the best-of-5 first-round series isn't until Thursday night.

When asked if he had an concerns about the health of center Shaquille O'Neal, MVP of the NBA finals the last two years, Lakers coach Phil Jackson replied, "No, none."

Hampered by an arthritic right big toe and other ailments during a season in which he sat out 15 games, O'Neal seems fine now. He scored 67 points in back-to-back games earlier this week. Back-to-back games during the regular season are common and not the best thing for O'Neal's toe.

The status of playoff standout Robert Horry is uncertain, and that is another concern. A test yesterday revealed Horry has a pooling of blood under his abdominal muscle, but the muscle itself is normal.

Of the possibility Horry could miss some playing time, Jackson said, "We won't think about that until it's a reality. But you know it's important for us to get Rob back. We do have some time. Even one game is a critical thing, but we'll have to play through it."

The 31-year-old Horry, known for his outstanding work in the postseason, has played on four championship teams two with the Lakers and another pair with Houston in the mid-1990s.

Jackson said he is as confident about his team now as last year, when the Lakers won their last eight regular-season games for a 56-26 record and carried that momentum through a remarkable 15-1 postseason.

"I think we believe in ourselves," Jackson said. "We know what the combination is, I think we're one more year experienced. I think we've got a goal to defend and we've shown that in the last couple of weeks. Our defense has come around pretty good."

The Lakers, who didn't practice yesterday, won 11 of their last 15 games to finish 58-24. They're seeded third in the Western Conference but have homecourt advantage against everyone but the Sacramento Kings, a potential opponent in the conference finals.

The Lakers faced a similar situation last year with homecourt advantage in every series except the conference finals. They swept Portland in three games and Sacramento and San Antonio in four each before beating Philadelphia 4-1 to win the title.

O'Neal often said the team was bored during the regular season, which must have been the case when it lost to the lowly Chicago Bulls twice and Memphis, Denver, Golden State and Atlanta once each.

Boredom shouldn't be a problem now. And, according to Kobe Bryant, neither should overconfidence.

"We're vulnerable every year," he said. "We could have been beaten last year. We just did a better job of camouflaging our weaknesses and covering for one another. But every team is vulnerable."

The Lakers enter the postseason having won 15 straight home games. They were 2-2 against the Blazers this season, including a 128-120 double-overtime loss at Portland last Sunday.

The Blazers celebrated afterward like they'd won something important, which wasn't lost on the Lakers.

What's important lies ahead.

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