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Series is a chess game for Pippen and Jackson

As they prepare to meet in the Western Conference final, the Lakers and Trail Blazers have grown from almost-good-enough to the class of the league.

They had the two best records. They are the teams everybody expected to meet to decide who's best in the West, beginning today at the Staples Center.

MVP Shaquille O'Neal said the Trail Blazers probably are the best team he's faced this season.

"They're a very talented, very enthusiastic team," O'Neal said after Friday's practice. "They play hard and they want to win just as bad as we want to win. It's going to be an exciting series."

Not long ago, both teams were said to lack the certain something that makes a champion, but those holes might have been filled, largely by those who played a part in Michael Jordan's championship era.

In Los Angeles, coach Phil Jackson brought his confidence, steady leadership and triangle offense, and O'Neal and Kobe Bryant became a spectacularly effective combination. Jackson also brought in one of his old role players, Ron Harper.

In Portland, Scottie Pippen, Jordan's No. 1 helper in Chicago, came in a trade from Houston and brought leadership, experience and a calming influence to a team that had been long on talent but short on maturity. The Blazers also added Steve Smith and Detlef Schrempf, and got rid of Isiah Rider, replacing unpredictable antics with low-key professionalism.

Sure, there's still the hot-tempered Rasheed Wallace, but it's a far different Portland team from the one swept from the conference final by San Antonio last year.

"It's night and day," the Blazers' Brian Grant said. "Last year it was uncharted territory for a lot of guys. We were just playing off of talent and heart. This year there's more purpose to it, more preparedness, knowing what's ahead, knowing how to handle certain situations if they come up, whereas last year things came up and it was like shock treatment."

Since both teams clinched their semifinal series on Tuesday, there has been some long-distance gamesmanship.

Jackson suggested that Pippen was the only player on the Portland roster capable of leading the Blazers past the Lakers.

"Phil is just trying to plant a seed in our head, trying to get us to go in our different directions," Pippen said before the team left for Los Angeles.

In the Jackson-Pippen subplot, it's hard to know whether the coach or the player will have the advantage from the familiarity the two have with one another.

Pippen is the player he is today because of Jackson, the Lakers' John Salley said.

"Phil knows his downfalls. He knows his strength. He knows his intensity. He made him what he is, to be truthful," Salley said. "When I played against Scottie in Detroit, we knew that's who you went after. He didn't have the mental strength."

Then Jackson arrived and Pippen was transformed.

"Now," Salley said, "he's probably the strongest mental player I've ever had to play against."

Jackson said the key matchup in the series will be Portland's Smith defending Glen Rice.

"We have not really taken advantage of Steve Smith," Jackson said.

"He's playing with a pretty bad leg and defensively he has some liabilities, but we really haven't exploited those with Glen. That's a matchup where he's got to show that he can overwhelm him."

WIZARDS: St. John's coach Mike Jarvis and the team continued talks about its coaching position, a school spokesman said. Jarvis was in New York, having returned from Washington on Wednesday, where he helped daughter Dana prepare for her July wedding.

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