SEATTLE — There are Super Sundays and then there are super Sundays.
The Lakers' came and went to near perfection, along the lines of a wish list that turned into reality. Nick Van Exel got another big game against the team he has terrorized since the 1995 playoffs, Shaquille O'Neal got to continue his three-year vendetta against George Karl, Kobe Bryant and Travis Knight got crunch-time minutes in a playoff atmosphere as a learning experience, and they all got a 104-103 matinee victory over the Seattle SuperSonics before 17,072 at KeyArena.
The only setbacks appear minor. Robert Horry, in his first game as a starter at small forward after coming off the bench the first five outings since being acquired from Phoenix, contributed 12 points, but also suffered a sprained left ankle in the fourth quarter that has him day-to-day. And there was that little matter of the 21-point lead midway through the second quarter becoming a temporary two-point deficit in the fourth.
The Lakers avoided disaster, though, holding on for their eighth victory in the last 11 games against the SuperSonics when Hersey Hawkins' three-pointer at the buzzer bounced off the rim.
"I'll tell you what," Coach Del Harris said. "It would have been so tough emotionally had we lost it."
Not that he knew from experience or anything, like another time this season when the Lakers were on the road, against a championship contender, on national TV, on fire the first half . . . and then on mental life support when it was over. Chicago flashbacks.
Instead, the emotions that remained at the end were that of Van Exel, as usual downplaying a rivalry with Gary Payton that has always seemed filled with emotion, but doing nothing to lighten the significance of the opponent. He even thought back to that memorable first-round series against the SuperSonics, those four games as a 180-pound wrecking ball, before Sunday's game, even if some of the great moments from the spring of '95 were down the road in Tacoma during renovation of KeyArena.
So when it came time to play, Van Exel couldn't hide his bubbling emotions. Not that he tried.
"You can see it in Nick," teammate Eddie Jones said. "Look at that first quarter. He came out like, 'Move. I got this.' "
Said Van Exel: "It's Seattle. Super Bowl Sunday. Everybody's watching. It's a big game for both teams."
Playing with the left hand taped to aid a sprained thumb, his first quarter was 10 points, with five baskets in eight shots, two assists and four rebounds, one more than O'Neal and as many as Shawn Kemp. It became the start of his 25-point day, tying Payton for game-high honors.
The Lakers led at one point, 51-30, but Seattle closed the deficit in the second half. It was 93-93 when O'Neal went to work. He made one free throw, dunking on the next possession, and then following that by stripping Kemp inside to stop a potential score.
He loved every minute, of course, but more than usual because this had the additional satisfaction of heaping grief upon Karl, Seattle's coach. Oh, and coach in the 1994 All-Star game when the Western Conference big men--Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Karl Malone, Kemp--practically gang-tackled O'Neal to stop him from scoring.
O'Neal finished two for 12 from the field that day in Minneapolis and has held it against Karl ever since, figuring the attack dogs were sent to remind the rising star, then in his second season, that the Hall of Fame wasn't calling yet. Only O'Neal began to send a message of his own: He had 38 points and 20 rebounds when the SuperSonics played at Orlando three games after the break that season in a 31-point victory by the Magic.
His uniform has changed since then. His feelings haven't.
"I just want to shove it," O'Neal said. "You know what I'm trying to say?"
Tough not to.
"You just have to let some people know," he said. "When I get hit, I'm going to hit back."
He meant that as a figure of speech, but there's pain inflicted either way. Sunday, he hit Karl for 22 points and 11 rebounds, meaning the SuperSonics may have gotten off easy. In the first meeting of O'Neal's Laker era, Dec. 3 at the Forum, he had 32 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists and three blocks in a 110-106 victory.
Settling in the rematch also means the Lakers having to enjoy a close win in what was once a rout. It could have been worse, of course. They could have lost, what with the teams still deadlocked at 100-100 with 1:45 left.
But the Lakers responded by scoring the next four points, giving up a three-point play when Payton was fouled while converting a driving layup with 30.2 seconds remaining, and then holding on. The SuperSonics used two timeouts before throwing the ball in with eight-tenths of a second to go for a desperation shot, which didn't look so desperate as soon as Hawkins got free from defender Bryant for a 25-footer.
"I could tell it was to the left," Harris said. "But sometimes, these things hit the lip [of the rim] and come back."
Not this time. Not this Sunday.