Blazers dig deep, but are they playoff ready?

Sports commentary

Anyone with a sports pulse the past few years knows how intense the Portland Trailblazers/L.A. Lakers rivalry has become.

It doesn’t take much to get fans in either city fired up. The mere mention of “Blazers/Lakers” should be enough to get them to drop whatever they’re doing and flock to the nearest TV set.

NBA diehards know that whenever Sheed, Bonzi and company square off against Shaq, Kobe and the boys, they’re in for a dogfight. When pride is at stake — as is the case every time these two division foes lock horns — the only things left on the court are blood, sweat and tears.

Sunday’s double-overtime showdown at the Rose Garden — a game the Blazers won 128-120 — was right on par with what the fans have grown accustomed to in this series: Run-and-gun, down-to-the-wire excitement with a hint of

animosity, a tinge of controversy, and a dose of late-game heroism.

Your ordinary kitchen knife couldn’t have cut the tension inside that gym on Sunday. As the teams jockeyed for playoff position, every play was intensified, every mistake magnified, and every bad call by the referees crucified.

At one point, the ultra-exuberant Portland fans resembled a band of hoodlums out of the south Bronx or east Philadelphia when they relentlessly flung souvenir Bill Walton dolls, plastic water bottles and other paraphernalia onto the court in protest of the officials. (In my opinion, though, if you’re going to toss any doll onto a court, it should be done so in effigy of Big Red.)

But regardless of my detest for the long-time NBC broadcaster, not even the lowly Lakers deserve to see a sorry display like that. Adding injury to insult, the game was broadcast on national TV, so basketball fans from L.A. to New York now know how classy the fans of Portland really are.

If there is any defense for the fans’ wiley behavior on Sunday, it’s that they were reacting to numerous borderline calls that preceded the backbreaker — a defensive three-second call on Scottie Pippen with 2:20 remaining in the first half.

Pippen didn’t help matters, however, when he launched the ball into the stands to voice his displeasure. (Michael Jordan’s former right hand man and the Blazers’ supposed team leader should know better.)

He also should have known better than to explode into a similar outburst two games ago when he took a swing at Dallas’ Nick Van Exel. Oh well, as long as the team’s winning, right?

Perhaps this sudden bout of immaturity will sting a bit more when Pippen is serving a two-game suspension in the playoffs — two games that will likely be played in Los Angeles against these same Lakers.

Maybe Scottie getting the heave-ho was the gasoline on the fire the Blazers needed, but when a team is heading into the playoffs, the last thing it needs is for its court general to go spouting off.

And if Scottie’s tantrum did, in fact, fire the team up, why did it take this team of multiple personalities so long to get angry?

Will we have to wait to see these guys get upset when they are sitting on the doorstep of playoff elimination again this year?

Last year it was hard to tell if the Blazers were even perturbed after the Lakers swept them away in three games. After another Jekyll and Hyde season for the Blazers, the players may secretly want it to be over.

But any time you beat the Lakers — especially after being behind double digits in the fourth quarter this late in the year — there exists new reason for optimism. Not only that, but the Blazers appeared to be down and out.

At the time of Pippen’s outburst, the Lakers were ahead by three. Almost two full quarters later, L.A. had jumped ahead 85-72 with seven minutes remaining.

The Blazers were starting to heave up three-pointers. Fans were making their way to the exits. The Lakers were beginning to gloat over another big road victory.

Then it clicked.

Just when it looked like the Blazers had buried themselves under a mountain of turnovers, missed chances and questionable calls, they rose up from the ashes to chisel away the 13-point lead in a matter of seconds.

Bonzi Wells hit countless long bombs, Ruben Patterson and Damon Stoudamire attacked the lane, and Rasheed Wallace and Shawn Kemp played spirited defense on Shaq Daddy.

The tides were turning ever so slightly, and even Kobe Bryant’s iron will couldn’t stop the inevitable from happening.

Whenever Bryant appeared to put the Lakers ahead to stay, Wells would respond with another 30-foot bomb with a hand in his face to keep the Blazers within striking distance. And when the Lakers adjusted their defense to prevent Wells from killing them again, Wallace stepped up for a bomb with 2.5 seconds left to tie the game at 105.

By the time the Blazers escaped with the 128-120 win, edges of seats were worn out, few fingernails remained unchewed and blood-pressure pills were in high demand.

Everyone in that gym was wired, and talk of possible first-round playoff rematch began to surface. But is that what the fans really want? Do we really want to be another speed bump on Shaq and Kobe’s road to a three-peat?

If the Blazers play with the heart they exhibited Sunday, sure. But if they follow Scottie Pippen’s lead, be prepared for another first-round flameout.

Unfortunately, this team doesn’t have an MJ to keep it in check.

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