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Nearly 23-Skiddoo

Huge early lead almost gets away, then L.A. pulls out victory behind O'Neal


The Lakers are three victories now from their glorious three-peat, and yet the message in Phil Jackson's handwriting on the grease board late Wednesday night suggested they had made the NBA Finals more of a series than it needed to be.

"Gave them some confidence," it read. "Take it back."

The Lakers, whose generosity with leads and focus long ago became a personality trait, defeated the New Jersey Nets, 99-94, at Staples Center in the first game of the best-of-seven series. Game 2 is Friday night at Staples.

They turned a 23-point, second-quarter lead into a game. By the end, the Nets, prodded by Jason Kidd's triple-double, twice came within three points. The crowd, dulled by the early advantage, became louder, but never frantic. The Lakers, dulled perhaps by the strain of the seven-game series against Sacramento, played with more intent, but did not panic.

Shaquille O'Neal scored 14 of his 36 points and took nine of his 16 rebounds in the fourth quarter, despite missing half of his 16 free-throw attempts. And by the end, the Nets never actually had the basketball in their hands with a chance to tie or lead.

When the long strands of confetti fell at the end, the Lakers tilted their heads and walked through it, fairly displeased with their loss of concentration, but quite willing to take the final result. Overwhelming favorites to win the series and therefore become the fifth team to win three consecutive championships, the Lakers happily moved past their errors and to the message Jackson had written above his gentle admonishment: "3 mo'."

"We came out with the intensity and focus we had in the last series," Kobe Bryant said. "It carried over. Then, the second quarter, third quarter, it died down."

Bryant scored 22 points despite missing 10 of 16 field-goal attempts. He saved the Lakers in the third quarter, when he scored 11 points and almost everybody else went bad.

Rick Fox scored 14 points and Derek Fisher, breaking free of a shooting slump that had cost him most of the postseason, made four of seven shots and scored 13 points.

The difference was O'Neal. While Kidd did laps around the Laker defense and finished with 23 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds, O'Neal pounded Todd MacCulloch, Aaron Williams and Jason Collins--the Nets' Shaq Pack--with spin moves and turn-around jump shots.

In the first games of his past three NBA Finals, O'Neal has scored 43 points, 44 points and 36 points. And so he tore into the Nets, who fouled him often, and he made 12 of 21 free throws. The Lakers shot 45 free throws to the Nets' 26, but the numbers reflected the Nets' defense on O'Neal, particularly in the final quarter, and no one complained afterward with any conviction.

"I missed a couple shots that I shouldn't have missed," O'Neal said. "You know, we've seen every type of defense. I'm sure they're probably going to switch it up in Game 2, and I'm going to continue to do the same thing I've been doing, taking the high-percentage shots. And if they triple or double, I'll just kick it out."

Net Coach Byron Scott opted for fresh bodies on O'Neal, primarily MacCulloch early and in the middle, Williams behind MacCulloch and then Collins for five fouls in eight minutes at the end. The Nets threw occasional zones at the Lakers and concentrated harder on disrupting the entry passes than doing something with O'Neal.

"Later on in the game, the more he tries to dominate the paint like he was doing, the more I try to tell Aaron Williams, 'You're going to have to use up some fouls,' " Scott said. "I don't mind getting two points and giving up one. If he hits both, then he's done his job. But it's not our intention to put him on the free-throw line 20 times a game."

The Lakers played their 12th NBA Finals game in three years, the Nets their first. Ever.

At times, particularly early, there was hardly confusing the two.

The Nets scored 36 points in the first half, the fewest given up by the Lakers in a finals' half since the advent of the shot clock.

That was fine for the Lakers, but he Nets did most of the work.

They missed a lot of open jump shots, starting with Keith Van Horn. The Lakers barely bothered to guard Kenyon Martin outside 15 feet.

In the first quarter New Jersey missed 16 of 22 field-goal attempts and the Lakers had a 17-4 run. O'Neal scored 10 points on seven shots in the quarter, and Scott called two timeouts before the series was six minutes old.

"Well, I thought we were real vulnerable that first game, knowing the kind of energy we expended in the last series," Jackson said. "I got them revved up for the first quarter, but we kind of let up on the gas from the rest of that. The rest of the game, the Nets kind of handled the action, especially in the second half."

The Lakers made half of their 26 field-goal attempts in the first quarter, and 43.5% after that. Meantime, the Nets--led by 21 points (on 22 shots) by Martin and Kidd's all-around play--outscored the Lakers in every quarter but the first, after which they trailed, 29-14.

"We just have to relax," Kidd said. "We have nothing to lose.... Nobody said it was going to be easy to win on the road.

"We have to do it for four quarters instead of three."

The final three quarters showed the Nets indeed will have a shooter's chance to win some games in the series, particularly in New Jersey, beneath familiar rims.



Game 1 Vitals




Shaquille O'Neal, 36

New Jersey

Jason Kidd, 23




Shaquille O'Neal, 16

New Jersey

Jason Kidd, 10




Kobe Bryant, 6

New Jersey

Jason Kidd, 10



Lakers, 33-72 (45.8%)

New Jersey, 37-94 (39.4%)



Lakers, 32-45 (71.1%)

New Jersey, 15-26 (57.7%)



Lakers, 9

New Jersey, 19



Lakers, 23 in second quarter

New Jersey, two in first quarter

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