SALT LAKE CITY — The season was over, and, if you listened to Nick Van Exel, so was the tempestuous relationship between Nick Van Exel and Del Harris.
With a tired voice and frustrated words Monday night, Van Exel just about pronounced an end to his rocky relationship with the Laker coach and suggested that Harris is far too worried about outside pressure to properly coach this team.
Asked in the wake of the frenzied finish to Game 5 and the Laker season, if he could co-exist with Harris, Van Exel shook his head and said: "I don't think so."
If this was his last game as a Laker, Van Exel played it out to the fullest, scoring a team-high 26 points in 51 minutes of passionate action--but, as he noted, he went shotless in the deciding moments of the game, including the play at the end of regulation that Harris called for Kobe Bryant, who shot the first of his four airballs.
Van Exel disputed Harris' decision.
"I fell like I wanted to take the last shot," Van Exel said. "But he wanted to go to Kobe. He's going to be a great player in this league, but maybe the season caught up with him a little on those threes, he came up a little short."
Was putting the season on his shoulders a lot to ask an 18-year-old, who went on to shoot two more airballs in the overtime period?
"Definitely," Van Exel said. "Game 5 of the playoffs, we can't lose, that's a lot of pressure on a Kobe.
"But, he's young, he thrives on the pressure situation."
Van Exel says he does, too.
"I just wanted to come out aggressively, attack, attack attack," Van Exel said. "It wasn't about showing everybody that I have the pressure on me off the court so I'm going to prove I can play. But I just wanted to come out and play aggressive."
Sunday, Van Exel intimated that his time with the Lakers was over.
Monday night, Van Exel wouldn't comment when asked if he wanted to stay, but made clear that either he or Harris would have to go.
"This year, the way it ended was just so senseless, it just doesn't make any sense," Van Exel said, referring to the controversy surrounding the Game 4 blow-up between he and Harris after he was yanked from the game two minute into it.
"And it's going to be on me, I know that. I've just got to suck it up like I always do, and move on."
And Van Exel also implied that it might not be the point guard who gets the boot when Laker General Manager Jerry West is done.
"I think Jerry West, he's a very bright guy," Van Exel said. "I'm sure he knows what he's going to do and I'm sure he's going to make all the right moves with this organization."
Van Exel said he was able to play such a strong game amid the controversy because he doesn't care about what's written about him or the team--something he said that Harris is too involved with.
"If you read the papers, you feel the pressure," Van Exel said. "I don't read the papers, I don't get into all that.
"Del, he's got all the papers, from all 50 states. But it's not about that, it's about the guys in here, man."
Then, Van Exel turned to Eddie Jones, seated at the locker next-door.
"Eddie, how many quotes have we gotten from Del?" Jones shrugged and smiled. Then, with a bright smile, Van Exel raised his voice to mimic Harris' dull twang, and continued:
"'They say we shouldn't do this, we shouldn't do that .'. . "' Van Exel said in Harris' voice before stopping; "It's not about them. It's about us here in this locker room.
"We had a lot of potential, a lot of talent, and we got beat by a team that's not as talented but that plays together as a unit. They were the better team.
"Now who knows what's going to happen. There's a chance they could be making some changes around here. This was the year we could've won it. You don't know how many chances you're going to get. This might've been our chance to win it."
Shaquille O'Neal made a point to try to buffer the obvious acrimony between point guard and head coach.
"It wasn't Del's fault, it wasn't Nick's fault," O'Neal said. "Blame the leader, and I'm the leader."
But, as Van Exel stressed over and over Monday night, the story of the end of this Laker season--as it was, to some extent, last season, too--was Van Exel vs. Harris, and that is not likely to continue any longer.
"That's not on my mind right now," Van Exel said. "If I'm here, I'm here. If I'm not, I'm not."