PORTLAND -- It used to be that NBA teams had to claw their way up the mountain, needed to suffer heartbreaks and setbacks before they could ascend to the top.
The rules are different now that Michael Jordan has abdicated the throne. Championships are open for bidding.
The Los Angeles Lakers don't have to beat the bully on the block to get home from school the way the Pistons had to go through the Celtics and the Bulls had to go through the Pistons in the 1980s.
The only team standing in the way of a championship is the Lakers.
Game 7, in which the opponent is their own inconsistency and inadequacy as much as the Portland Trail Blazers.
That's all that is left.
The San Antonio Spurs didn't get a true chance to defend their championship with an injured Tim Duncan watching the playoffs from the sidelines.
The Lakers' old nemesis, the Utah Jazz, has struggled to keep pace with the younger, more athletic teams the past two postseasons.
Portland is a worthy competitor, a team that counterattacks the Lakers' two superstars with greater versatility. The Trail Blazers are as capable of beating the Lakers as the Lakers are capable of beating them, as the teams have demonstrated in playing the four regular-season and six playoff games to date.
But the Lakers should know by now that 48 minutes of their best effort on their home court can beat any team in the league.
The Trail Blazers' 103-93 victory in Game 6 Friday night was the result of a superior effort, not superiority.
Portland made hustle plays, made smart plays. The Trail Blazers did enough things right to compensate for Scottie Pippen going 30 1/2 minutes before scoring a point, enough things right to prevail despite making only one of their eight three-point attempts.
Mike Dunleavy has moved ahead in the coaching chess match by using big lineups (including one combination of Pippen and Bonzi Wells at guards and a frontcourt of Arvydas Sabonis, Brian Grant and Rasheed Wallace) over the past two games and forcing Phil Jackson to react.
The Trail Blazers won because Wells and Steve Smith scored almost as many points as Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant (50-46), a statistical close call that was really a huge victory for the Trail Blazers.
The Lakers lost Game 6 because they missed 14 of 27 free throws, all but throwing away the game. They actually shot better from behind the three-point arc (12 of 19) than behind the free-throw line.
They lost because they didn't throw the ball into O'Neal early, and then he didn't do much when he did get it: seven for 17 from the field, three for 10 from the line.
When the Lakers first came to Portland with the series tied, 1-1, it appeared they would be lucky to get to a Game 7. Now, Game 7 looms as a disappointment.
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