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Mark Heisler ON THE NBA

Net Result Fine With Scott

April 04, 2002|Mark Heisler

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — On the plus side for the Lakers, Shaquille O'Neal finally got to rest his sore toe.

Of course, the way it was supposed to go, they would stage another of their patented late-season surges and lock up the No. 1 seed in the West, first. Instead, O'Neal came up with a sore wrist Wednesday night, sidelining him against the New Jersey Nets, who romped to a 19-point lead, held off a brave Laker rally and won, 94-92.

However valiant, the Lakers are now 21/2 games behind the West-leading Sacramento Kings, and three in the loss column, with seven to play.

Of course, it was even more thrilling for the young Nets, who don't often beat the NBA champions, or sell out (this was their sixth of the season and it's almost over) and thus could overlook indignities, like perhaps 10% of the crowd rooting for the Lakers, and not having a chance to make a statement against Shaq.

Someone even asked Net Coach Byron Scott afterward if he wasn't a little sorry O'Neal hadn't played.

"No," said Scott, ignoring convention, as usual. "I was hoping Kobe [Bryant] would fall down and be out for the game, also. Not hurt himself but be out for the game.

"You have to take 'em as you get 'em."

This task looked daunting enough. The NBA balance of power doesn't just tilt West now, it drops, as off a cliff (although there's no truth to the rumor the East winner will go into a round-robin against the champions of the National Developmental Basketball League and the WNBA to see who faces the Western team.)

The Nets, who lead the East by three games, have a .660 winning percentage against their own conference. Meanwhile, the No. 7 team in the West, Seattle, has a .655 mark against East teams, and No. 8 Utah is .633 against them.

So it made good sense for the Nets to zip it up before this game, which they did. There was none of that "statement game" stuff that Scott's mentor, Pat Riley, loved, no "potential finals previews" illusions.

Scott did note that the difference between his team (Nets) and his old team (Lakers) was one more marquee player ... like Jason Kidd.

Now, the consensus is that it's a miracle that the Nets landed Kidd, and another such lightning bolt isn't expected soon.

So you can imagine Byron's delight when fate subtracted one of the Lakers' marquee players, evening out the sides, and the Nets then went up by 19.

Of course, Bryant then went into one of his numbers you have to see to believe before finally failing to complete the final bit of magic, coming out of nowhere to rebound Rick Fox's missed free throw but missing the shot that would have left the Nets talking to themselves for years.

"He came from the side," said the Nets' Richard Jefferson, who had lined up on the lane. "You can't box him out so basically, he gets a running start. And then the ball just came off--on that side, the side he was on.

"I guarantee you, if Rick Fox was to take that shot 10 more times, that ball wouldn't come off in that direction, that position again."

Actually, a Net--Kidd, who was next to Bryant--was supposed to box out Kobe but he had an excuse.

"I can't jump that high," Kidd said.

As Bryant's head, shoulders and torso soared above the crowd on the play, TV replays showed Scott, normally as expressive as the Sphinx, watching on the sidelines, with his eyes starting to roll back in his head.

"First of all, I couldn't believe he got there," Scott said, "and then when he got it in his hands, I couldn't believe he missed. But that's Kobe. This guy's an unbelievable athlete, an unbelievable basketball player. You guys got a chance to see him in rare form tonight....

"Kobe Bryant is the real deal."

In 1996, when they were Lakers together, they were like teacher and student. Scott says he still bleeds purple and gold and, of course, Nets red, white and blue too. Before the game, he walked to the Laker bench, shook hands with all the coaches and hugged trainer Gary Vitti and Bryant.

After that, the atmosphere thickened. In the third quarter, with fans needling him, Laker Coach Phil Jackson growled, "You weren't even here two months ago! Johnny-come-lately, giving me grief!"

It's just the way things are going for the Lakers these days, imperfectly.

At this point last season, they already had all their grief out of the way, with everything falling together in a 23-1 season-ending thunderclap.

This season is looking a lot more like real life.

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