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After a Snoozer, It Can Only Get Better

June 06, 2002|Mark Heisler

I don't think we're in Sacramento any more, Toto.

From the sublime to the finals. The Lakers were drained from their previous series, they said. The Nets were awed at the start, they said. Talk about your Herculean matchups.

"Well, now that I think our guys got their first-quarter jitters out of the way," said Net Coach Byron Scott, "maybe this is going to be a better series than people think it's going to be.

"I think our guys being in the championship series for the first time were a little nervous and getting off to a bad start in the first quarter obviously didn't help.... I think it's human nature. I think guys who haven't been here, you know, you're going to be a little nervous.

"You know this is the biggest stage in basketball so you're going to have some jitters and you're going to probably go out there and do some things that you're not accustomed to.... I wasn't nervous at all. I just wanted to calm down and relax and get back to playing basketball."

Oh yeah, in addition to being smaller than the Lakers and less accomplished than the Lakers, the Nets are also less experienced than the Lakers.

Only two of the players they used Wednesday night had ever been past the first round of the playoffs before this season. Only one, Todd MacCulloch, had ever been in the finals, as a reserve for the 76ers last spring.

So Friday, having added one invaluable game in the NBA Finals to their resumes, they'll have to try it again,

Of course, their best shot is that the Lakers doze off on them, which is what happened Wednesday night. Fortunately for the Lakers, they ran up a 23-point lead first, then spent the rest of the game watching the Nets whittle it down. In case you missed the Lakers' season, this was a nice re-enactment: fast start, nap, wake up at the end, hope for the best.

The Nets, of course, were coming in as massive underdogs, or as a headline in the New York Post put it, "DAVID, MEET GOLIATH."

Not that there weren't people who thought the Nets could win, although most of them were Nets or Net fans or had a rooting interest in seeing a competitive series. Speaking on behalf of the NBC broadcast team, Bill Walton gave them an excellent chance of making this a series (and keeping viewers from clicking over to "Survivor III," "The Moon" or an infomercial.)

After showing precisely why they were such massive underdogs in the first quarter, when the Lakers toyed with them, the Nets settled in. Led by Jason Kidd, they cut the Laker lead to 12 by halftime, and to three in the fourth quarter.

That was some fourth quarter, too. The Lakers, who shot 27 free throws in their last one here against the Kings, got 25 more Wednesday night. Not that the Nets protested because most of the time they were grabbing Shaquille O'Neal, who shot 16 of them, making eight.

Afterward, everyone started making a fuss about how well Shaq has been shooting free throws, although Wednesday night, he was only 12 for 21. If he doesn't do better than that, he's going to get a lot more practice.

"Does that mean I won't foul him?" said Scott, noting O'Neal's improvement. "No. I'd rather take my chances with Shaq shooting from 15 feet than three or four feet."

Last spring as a 76er, MacCulloch had several nice moments against O'Neal, but he was only playing as Dikembe Mutombo's backup and Shaq may not have even known his name.

As Phil Jackson noted, "It's always a shock to play against Shaquille," and MacCulloch got the full treatment in the first half, when O'Neal scored 16 points, shooting eight for 13 from the field. However, the Nets started making it more difficult to get the ball inside and/or the Lakers stopped trying and Shaq made only four of nine in the second half.

So the Nets can hope. "I think we were a little too excited to be here, maybe, I don't know.... We just needed a while to calm down and unfortunately, it took us too long," MacCulloch said. "It didn't get through our heads the first couple of minutes when it needed to."

Said Kenyon Martin: "We got their attention. We're a young team. They came out like champions but I think we got their attention."

The Nets say they'll be calm next time and the Lakers say they'll be rested. For the sake of everyone involved, let's hope so.

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