Before the Los Angeles Lakers dynasty of the early 2000s reached their pinnacle of success, they went through trials and tribulations that helped shape the mold of championship chemistry. The 1997-98 teamfeatured a youthful roster headlined by Shaquille O’Neal, with a mix of players beginning their NBA careers and those in their prime.
By the end of the season, head coach Del Harris and the Lakers concluded with a 61-21 record, good enough for third in their conference. They were slotted against the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the playoffs, a team with which they would go through quite the battles with.
Harris methodically constructed his starting lineups, electing to bring scorers like Nick Van Exel, Elden Campbell and Kobe Bryant off the bench. His starting five of Derek Fisher, Eddie Jones, Rick Fox, Robert Horry and O’Neal went up against Damon Stoudamire, Isaiah Rider, Rasheed Wallace, Brian Grant, and Arvydas Sabonis.
Game 1, played April 24, 1998, at The Forum, provided an electric atmosphere to play in, as 17,505 fans witnessed a grueling back-and-forth affair. The Lakers youth would show early on, starting out a little nervous.
Rider provided the scoring punch for Portland, while Sabonis and Wallace also were consistent threats on the court. Los Angeles needed to make constant defensive adjustments throughout the game, which would allow them to counter with runs of their own.
In fact, they limited the Trail Blazers to seven less points in the second quarter, but trailed 53-47 going into halftime. Although Fisher received the start and made an impact defensively (two steals), Van Exel received 33 minutes at the point guard position and made his presence felt.
Hetallied 14 points, three rebounds and a steal off the bench. At the same time, a sophomore Bryant started to show flashes of brilliance in the NBA. The first-time All-Star contributed 15 off the bench, to go with four assists and two blocks.
Along with Campbell (14 points), these three set the stage for an outburst in the second half. The Lakers outscored the Trail Blazers 27-21 in the third, leaving the game at 74-74 going into the final quarter.
The O’Neal and Bryant dynasty faced many bumps along the road, but also progressed into what Jerry West and Jim Buss envisioned all along. Although Sabonis banged around with O’Neal for three quarters, doing it for all of O’Neal’s 41 minutes is another challenge in itself.
He capped off his 30-point performance by shooting 13-for-20 from the field, to go with seven rebounds, three assists, two steals, and three blocks. O’Neal was quite the force in the paint, but he did need some help from his fellow starters.
That would come from Jones, a high-flyer that provided an all-around performance. Along with his 14 points, he added seven rebounds, three steals and six blocks.
With Jones and O’Neal leading the charge, the Lakers stamped a 104-102 victory in Game 1. The Lakers went on to eliminate the Trail Blazers in four games but ultimately fell to the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference Finals.
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