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NBA FINALS | Bill Plaschke

Lakers Rolling Dice of This Bored Game

June 06, 2002|Bill Plaschke

The first sweat has fallen, the first wounds have opened, the first battle has been waged, and the Laker challenge is clear.

Boredom.

It infiltrated them worse than Mike Bibby.

It pulled on their shorts worse than a faulty Nike drawstring.

It swelled their shoes worse than Shaquille O'Neal's right big toe.

The Lakers' opening duel in the NBA Finals Wednesday was supposed to be against the New Jersey Nets.

It was, instead, against the infernal yawns.

They won by five points but could have won by 30.

O'Neal scored 36 points but could have scored 60.

The Lakers could have soared but, instead, they shrugged, ending their 99-94 victory with a wink and a trudge.

"Cruise control," said Laker Coach Phil Jackson.

It was more like power brakes.

The Lakers dashed to a 23-point lead midway through the second quarter with everything these startled New Jersey visitors had feared, the Santa Monica energy, the Hollywood sights.

O'Neal hit a reverse layup on a no-look pass from Kobe Bryant.

Rick Fox hit a layup on a floor-length pass from Robert Horry.

Bryant sank a left-handed runner in the dazed face of Kerry Kittles.

Derek Fisher hit a three-pointer after grabbing a pass by a falling-out-of-bounds Horry.

In four consecutive possessions.

It was wild. It was loud. It all figured.

And then, it didn't.

Like oversized cartoon characters, the Lakers suddenly dug their heels into a screeching stop while a light bulb flashed above their heads.

Wait a minute! This series really is a mismatch!

This realization intact, they spent the remainder of the evening being outscored by 18 points, although the Nets never had the ball with a chance to tie the game, never looked like serious contenders, and didn't sound like it afterward.

"It's a long, loooong series," Richard Jefferson said. "We've just got to get one."

The Lakers need to realize it's about much more. For them, it's about four wins, three championships, and one legacy.

How do they want this team to be remembered?

If they think everyone will remember them only for the heart they showed in winning the defacto NBA championship during the Western Conference finals against the Sacramento Kings, they are wrong.

This team, like any team, will be remembered not by its best games, but its final games.

Two years ago, those games were the inspirational, injury-plagued fights against the Indiana Pacers.

Last year, those games were the street brawls against the Philadelphia 76ers.

So far this year?

"It seemed like a regular-season game, just going through the motions," said Brian Shaw, the veteran guard who can feel the Laker heartbeat better than most.

When asked if his team appeared bored, Shaw nodded.

"We did," he said. "Why did we do that? I don't know. But it was weird. It wasn't like it was the NBA Finals. Everybody going through the motions."

The game became so dull and uninspiring, the Staples Center folks took it upon themselves to play cheerleader, to which I would make one suggestion.

Shut up!

Ten days ago on this court, as Horry stalked away after his last-second heroics, public-address announcer Lawrence Tanter wonderfully intoned, "Never underestimate the heart of a champion."

On Wednesday, it was all about a tape recording of some jackal shouting, "Laker fans! Let's make some noise!"

Then the recording would blare, "That's not loud enough! We can't hear you!"

Again and again and again.

The game was a snooze but, what is this, Sacramento?

You see what happens when champions don't swagger like champions?

Somebody else tries to do it for them.

"It is important for us, for our pride, to play to the very best of our ability in this series," Shaw said. "We cannot get bored."

On that same night 10 days ago, fans poured into the streets singing, "Hor-ry, Hor-ry, Hor-ry."

The postgame murmurings heard Wednesday were reportedly something more like, "I paid $1,200 for a tiny seat plus $20 to a rude parking attendant to watch this?"

Things will be more difficult for the Lakers in Friday's Game 2. The Nets will have more confidence. The Lakers will have only themselves to blame.

"It's definitely a new deal now," said Fox. "Instead of taking that 20-point lead and turning it into 30 points and crushing them and taking them out of the series, we let them back in."

To paraphrase Bryant after the second loss to Sacramento, the Lakers aren't bored now.

We think.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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