Shaquille O'Neal led the Los Angeles Lakers to a 109-94 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers in the opener of the Western Conference finals of NBA best-of-seven playoff series, Saturday.
O'Neal, fouled virtually every time the Lakers had the ball in a four-minute stretch that began with 51/2 minutes to go, finished with 41 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and five blocked shots.
"I kind of knew they were going to do that," O'Neal said. "I think that is the ultimate respect to my game."
NBA Most Valuable Player and scoring leader O'Neal averaged 52 percent from the free-throw line during the regular season and 46 percent in the playoffs. Portland began fouling him midway through the fourth quarter to try pull even.
"Shaq shot 50 percent on the season and (we) try and go with percentages," Portland guard Boni Wells said. "We just couldn't get over that hump and hit those key shots."
O'Neal sank 12-of-25 free throws in the fourth quarter. Constant fouling of O'Neal, often when he was away from the ball, enabled him to break Michael Jordan's NBA record for most free-throw attempts in a quarter, a mere 14.
"I look at it as rest," Lakers All-Star guard Kobe Bryant said. "While he was up there shooting free throws, we had a chance to rest. It took him a little while to get his rhythm but once he settled into what they were trying to do, he just knocked them down."
O'Neal missed six free throws in a row and was 2-of-11 in one stretch. But he recovered to sink seven in a row while the Trail Blazers continually missed shots.
"I just need to go to the line, take my time and make them," O'Neal said of Portland's ploy. "It hasn't worked all year and it's not going to work now."
The best-of-seven Western Conference match-up continues in LA on Monday with the winner advancing to June's NBA Finals against Indiana, New York or Miami. New York and Miami meet Sunday. The winner faces Indiana in the other semifinal - (Several Sources)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)