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NBA FINALS | J.A. Adande

Lakers Get Back to Basics and Order a Shaq Pack

June 06, 2002|J.A. Adande

Patterns. A matter of habit. That's all the NBA Finals have become for Shaquille O'Neal.

It's an established routine here in the Lakers' third consecutive trip to the finals. O'Neal dominates Game 1, a trend that's become as traditional as Jeffrey Osborne singing the national anthem beforehand.

Then O'Neal insists, "It's all about us." He teases the stenographers. He forces the opponents, the media and any outside consulting groups willing to take on the challenge to address all the inherit problems in trying to stop him.

June 7, 2000: 43 points for O'Neal in Game 1 against the Indiana Pacers.

June 6, 2001: 44 points for O'Neal, in an overtime loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, followed by a week's worth of teasing the typists in every interview session and challenging them to get his every word, epithet and gibberish.

Take 3 was Wednesday night. O'Neal had 36 points, 16 rebounds and four blocked shots as the Lakers won a mundane NBA Finals opener against the New Jersey Nets by a score of 99-94.

Then he sat down at a microphone and saw his favorite stenographer/victim.

"I remember you," he said.

O'Neal is usually at his most effective in the first game of a series. That's because opponents have no way to simulate him in their preparation for the Lakers. It's hard enough for Western Conference opponents who face him multiple times throughout the season.

Imagine the poor Nets, who saw him only once this year (he had a wrist injury and sat out the teams' second meeting).

"We wanted to attack them inside," Laker Coach Phil Jackson said. "It's always a shock to have to play against Shaquille."

Apparently it's even a shock to out-of-town media.

One New York Times photographer, looking at a digital photo of O'Neal on a computer screen after the game said, "It's amazing how big he is."

It's not just that.

"He's a big guy with skills," said Net backup center Aaron Williams, one of three men given Shaq duty Wednesday night. "It's not easy."

Jason Kidd doesn't have to guard O'Neal. He does everything else for this team, however, and he did come up with some creative suggestions about what to do.

"The best way to defeat him is to figure out what car he's going to drive and put sand in the gas tank," Kidd said. "If he makes it to the arena, we're going to be in trouble."

Other ideas: "Put a detour sign up.

"Send him to the Forum."

All Net Coach Byron Scott could do was send his overmatched center corps of Williams, starter Todd MacCulloch and reserve Jason Collins in to guard O'Neal.

He went with a lot of single coverage, and he told them to go ahead and foul O'Neal if the situation got desperate.

In the first quarter, O'Neal made five of seven shots, the longest coming from seven feet away. He scored 10 points in only nine minutes of work. With the Lakers comfortably ahead, Jackson rested O'Neal for the final three minutes of the first quarter and the first three minutes of the second.

But with the Nets closing on a suddenly disinterested Laker squad and cutting a 23-point lead to three, the Lakers needed O'Neal down the stretch.

"We felt we had to get back to basics," Kobe Bryant said. "Get back to executing. Pound the ball inside and let Shaq take us home."

And the Nets needed to foul him.

"When he's getting the ball as deep as he's getting it, we try to make him earn it from the stripe," Scott said. "Especially later in the game.

"The more he's trying to dominate in the paint the way he's doing, the more I try to tell Aaron Williams, you're going to have to use up some fouls.

"But it's not our intention to put him on the free-throw line 20 times a game."

He took 21 free throws on Wednesday, 16 of them in the fourth quarter. O'Neal made only 12, a drop off from his run of 24 of his last 32 against Sacramento.

"I never really worry about percentages," O'Neal said. "I just have been shooting them the same way all year and I'm known to hit them when I need to hit them."

We've heard him say variations of that theme, what, 1,000 times now? But that's part of O'Neal's Finals routine, too.

But there are some changes. He made four of his last six free throws in the final 3 1/2 minutes, and it doesn't seem so astounding anymore.

During one late timeout, Jackson instructed O'Neal to inbound the ball if New Jersey scored so the Nets couldn't foul him and basically deny the Lakers a possession.

O'Neal said to Jackson: "Those days are gone."

"I think he said, 'They're going to foul you,' " O'Neal said. "I was like, 'So what? Let them foul me.' "

He was finished with his postgame interview.

He got up, walked around the table and stared at the stenographer as she typed away.

Back to his usual routine, right down to the little details.

*

J.A. Adande can be reached at: j.a.adande@latimes.com

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