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NBA PLAYOFFS

Van Exel Feels Tug of Frustration Early

Lakers: Point guard quarrels with Harris over decision to pull him after only two minutes of play.

May 11, 1997|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even though it's not supposed to any more, on Saturday, everything revolved around him again, every note of wild controversy and every raised eyebrow in the locker room pointed directly toward the point guard.

Nick Van Exit.

Proving that Del hath no fury like a Laker coach ignored before a sellout Forum crowd, Del Harris yanked Nick Van Exel out of Game 4 only 117 seconds into it when Van Exel either didn't hear or refused to recognize Harris' request to come near the Laker bench for instructions.

After Van Exel kicked a chair and his teammates blinked back their surprise, what proceeded was a very public--and, if you lip-read Van Exel--profane bench exchange between coach and player that lasted for just about the entire two minutes Van Exel was held out of the game in favor of Kobe Bryant.

Meanwhile, the Jazz, who were trailing, 2-0, when Van Exel was pulled, rumbled off 11 unanswered points before Van Exel got back in, gaining a lead the Lakers would work the rest of the game to overcome before losing, 110-95.

"Ask the coach," Van Exel said after the game when asked what caused the incident. "The coach made the decision. Ask the coach."

Given the long list of grumbles and screams exchanged between this combustible pair the past three seasons, maybe this was predictable.

But the timing and the consequences could not have been worse for a team scraping for its playoff survival, and now down, 3-1, traveling back to Salt Lake City for Monday's Game 5 at the Delta Center.

"I don't know [about the rest of the team, but] I was affected by it," Van Exel said. "When you come out and get yourself mentally prepared for a game like this, get fired up--and come out early like that. . . . It's beyond me.

"It hurt, man. I was frustrated, no doubt about it. Real frustrated."

Other Laker players chose discretion when asked about the latest Harris-Van Exel moment of unease.

"You have to ask them about that," said forward Jerome Kersey, who was sitting near Van Exel during the heated words. "I didn't have anything to do with that. That's their deal, you ask Coach and Nick about that."

Harris downplayed the confrontation but said he wanted Van Exel to come near the Laker bench to pass on some instructions to Elden Campbell, who had made a wrong a cut.

"I couldn't get Nick to come over, so I had to make a substitution to get the information through," Harris said. "He didn't like it. But I thought he ended up having a good game."

Harris shrugged off any suggestion that the quick hook in any way helped the Jazz seize control of the game. Van Exel played 42 minutes, scoring 15 points and recording seven assists. Bryant played a series-high 28 minutes, and also scored 15.

"Did I think by putting Kobe in that they would go on an 11-0 run? Obviously, I wouldn't have put him in if I thought that," Harris said. "It hasn't happened when I've put him in before.

"I think we all want Kobe to play, don't we?"

Laker assistant coach Larry Drew said he didn't quite know what the argument was about, but said it's clear the team did not respond well to everything that occurred in the early moments of Game 4.

"Obviously, it was something that Del wanted to make a point to him about," Drew said. "It was just one of those things that happen in the heat of the moment.

"If the point is going to get across, it's going to get across one way or the other, whether it's whispered or whether it's guys confronting one another.

"Even when that does happen, at this stage, I don't care who fills in, who comes out, you have to respond. And we didn't respond, not at all."

Drew, a longtime NBA point guard, conceded it was not a good sign to see coach and floor leader displeased with each other so soon into such a crucial game.

"Well, you don't like things like that to happen," Drew said. "You want everybody on the same page--coach, point guard, big guard, small forward, power forward, center . . .

"It's something you've got to have, especially in the playoffs. Because everybody's intense, everybody's pulling for the same goal. When things happen, either you respond to it in a positive way or in a negative way."

Bryant, who may or may not be the No. 1 point guard starting next season and who committed two turnovers that led to Jazz fastbreak points during the early run, conceded he was surprised to be sent in so quickly.

"I had no idea it was coming," Bryant said. "It caught us off guard, but we should have gone in there and still played, stepped into the rhythm of the game. And we didn't.

"You don't know about things like that. You've just got to make sure you're ready. I just do whatever I'm told."

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