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J.A. Adande

O'Neal Is True to His Word

June 01, 2002|J.A. Adande

The distress signal for the Kings came early on, when Shaquille O'Neal made it evident he had his complete arsenal at his disposal, backed by the full support of the officials.

S-0-S.

Same Old Shaq.

Serious Omen, Sacramento.

Seeya On Sunday.

O'Neal said before the playoffs started that this championship defense was on him. Just when it was about to end, he lived up to his word.

With time running out, O'Neal reached into his pocket, pulled out another quarter, popped it in the machine and the Lakers got to stay in the arcade at least two days longer.

O'Neal scored 41 points, made 13 of 17 free throws, pulled down 17 rebounds and blocked two shots--every one of those statistics vital to the Lakers' 106-102 victory in Game 6 that forced a decisive Game 7 in Arco Arena on Sunday.

"I was feeling it today," O'Neal said. "I wanted it today. My guys were looking for it."

This game took the Western Conference finals back to the basic premises. The prowess of the Lakers' big two of O'Neal and Kobe Bryant against the balanced Kings, who once again have their full complement of players now that Peja Stojakovic is back from an ankle injury.

The Kings had managed to take a 3-2 lead in the series with only 18 minutes from Stojakovic, all in Game 5. The Lakers hung in there despite a hobbled O'Neal, still fighting injuries to his toes and ankles.

While Kobe's cheeseburger was a distant memory and he pumped in 31 points, O'Neal didn't look afflicted at all in Game 6.

He elevated and dunked. He got to his favorite spots in the middle. When they weren't available, he went to his baseline jumper. He even spun and went under the glass for a reverse layup--which turned out to be the Lakers' last field goal and their only non-free throw among their final 18 points.

O'Neal showed glimpses of his old dominant self in Game 5, when he threw down dunks with abandon. But he shot only one free throw and was limited and eventually sent to the bench with fouls.

He got the and-ones he was looking for on Friday. And he converted them. O'Neal had three three-point plays in the first half. He made his first 10 free throws. When even that part of his game is working, he really is unstoppable.

He also had his storytelling skills going. The Big Aesop in effect.

O'Neal said he got his inspiration from an early-morning phone call from Kobe Bryant.

"A funny thing happened last night," O'Neal said. "I was sleeping, with my little daughter sleeping on me. She was slobbing, I was slobbing. The phone rang about 2:30. It was Kob. He was like, 'Big Fella, I need you tomorrow. Let's make history.'"

Unlike his other tale of the playoffs, when he said his father called him in the trainer's room as he was getting a cut finger stitched and told him to get back on the court, this one actually had another source.

Either it really happened, or he and Bryant collaborated on their stories before they went out to the podium.

"I called him and woke his big behind up," Bryant said.

We hate to doubt O'Neal's account of all the drooling, but that part might have been fabricated.

"I knew he wasn't asleep," Bryant said. "He doesn't go to sleep until about 5 in the morning. I might as well call him and see if I can catch him at home."

O'Neal was home all right. He's always at home when he has his monster playoff games against the Kings, like those two games of 40-plus points and 20-plus rebounds he strung together last season.

You could tell he and the Lakers were at home by the way the game was officiated.

This time it was Sacramento's turn to gripe about the officiating, and with good reason. The Lakers got just about every call they wanted. It was as if this game was one big makeup call for their perceived short-siding in Game 5.

Vlade Divac and Scot Pollard accrued most of their fouls against O'Neal. Chris Webber had five personal fouls.

The Lakers went to the line 40 times to Sacramento's 25.

That's what made this the Kings' most admirable performance of the series. They had to deal with O'Neal at his finest, allowed to do what he wanted. And the Kings answered every Laker shot, every mini-run. None of the 18,997 fans at Staples felt safe to exhale until Robert Horry's free throw gave the Lakers a four-point lead with 2.4 seconds remaining.

The Kings keep coming, and they'll be ready to go on Sunday. The Lakers are counting on their past Game 7 experience to get them through, and hoping that the Kings will finally realize the magnitude of what's at stake and play tight.

"The pressure's on them," O'Neal said. "The pressure's not on us."

The Lakers would be fools to take that approach. These Kings have defied every negative assumption about them and have demonstrated that they're ready.

If the Lakers are to get to the NBA Finals, O'Neal needs to demonstrate that he's ready to duplicate this feat on the road, where the officials aren't as friendly.

"I figured that I'm going to play the way I know how to play, I'm not going to change my game," O'Neal said of Friday's effort. "A couple of games, I was trying to be cute."

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