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And Last but Not ... Least?

Lakers: After grueling trip through the West, they are trying to show proper respect for East champion Nets.


On the eve of the NBA Finals, Shaquille O'Neal called Todd MacCulloch "respectable."

MacCulloch, who has reddish hair and freckles, flushed. He stepped back from the lectern in the corner of the gym and composed himself.

This is the starting center for the New Jersey Nets, champions of the Eastern Conference. Just last year, he played for the Philadelphia 76ers, who met the Lakers in the finals--and won a game.

He is 7 feet tall and 280 pounds. He, along with Jason Kidd, has had a nice influence on the formerly sorry Nets, who needed some heft in the middle and a sense of humor, both of which MacCulloch provided. He scored almost 10 points a game in the regular season and started every game in the playoffs.

"He said I'm respectable?" MacCulloch asked.

He smiled.

"That's a huge compliment right there, coming from him," MacCulloch said, clearly touched at a portrayal of his skills that was somewhat short of derogatory. "That's a real nice thing to say."

And everyone laughed with him, because MacCulloch is an easy-going sort.

Few outside East Rutherford and, maybe, Secaucus, expect the Nets to prevail. The Lakers, by many accounts, went most of the way toward their third consecutive NBA title on Sunday, when they beat the Sacramento Kings in overtime of Game 7. The Nets trudged in through the sagging bracket of a down conference, a gutsy team with little apparent chance of repeating those thrills in the NBA Finals.

For that reason, the series fits neatly into the O'Neal-MacCulloch scheme, a matchup of the established vs. the newcomers, of the ferocious vs. those who get by, Top 50 vs. respectable, and happy with it.

The Nets have never won an NBA title, have never even played for one. The Lakers are going on 14, eight in the last 22 years. While the feats of Magic Johnson and, among others, Byron Scott, could have no concrete impact on tonight's opener, there is something to be said for having been there before.

"Now that we're here with the opportunity to do that, I think you can think about what four more wins would mean," Laker forward Rick Fox said. "Not only just the championship, but solidifying the success of this team the last three years. It's an opportunity to stand with a lot of teams that have been able to do it a third time. There have been a lot of back-to-backs, but to do it a third time is rather remarkable."

The Nets, on the other hand, are being asked what they're doing here.

"We're here," Net forward Kenyon Martin said Tuesday. "You have to play the game.

"We've been playing well in the playoffs. If not, we would not be here.... If we are able to win this, I guess people would probably say it was a fluke. So, I'm tired of trying to plead my case to people."

The Nets are capable enough, it would seem, but lacking the talent to deal with O'Neal and Kobe Bryant and a system--Phil Jackson's--seemingly built for June.

The Lakers have won 11 consecutive playoff series, and now come upon the Nets, the only thing between them and another decorative banner for Staples Center.

The Nets must defend O'Neal, who tore through the Kings, particularly in the last two games of the series. The Lakers will run several players at Kidd, who has carried the revival of the Nets with his floor skills.

"Get back and stop the ball," Jackson said of the tactics against Kidd. "It doesn't matter who guards him. We've got to get back and stop the ball. That's the first rule against Jason Kidd. After that, know that he facilitates their offense. He's not interested in scoring, he's interested in winning."

There is a curiosity about the Lakers' legs, which fatigued in a seven-game conference finals. Last year, however, the Lakers had a week and a half to rest between the conference and NBA Finals, and then lost their only game of that postseason in Game 1.

MacCulloch recalls that. The Lakers beat his 76ers in five games, for their second consecutive championship. Now he has O'Neal again, this time without Dikembe Mutombo, this time with Aaron Williams and Jason Collins and a prayer.

Assuming a hale O'Neal, there would not be a more definitive mismatch on the court. "Does it motivate me? Yeah, it motivates me," MacCulloch said, adding, "I don't know who Shaq plays where it's not a mismatch. Tell me another guy. I'm just another one of those guys on the other end trying to do my job."

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