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NBA FINALS

Kidd Is Facing Tougher Task

Game 1: Net star has triple-double in loss to Lakers but never has the ball in a clutch possession.

June 06, 2002|ELLIOTT TEAFORD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

New Jersey Net point guard Jason Kidd dribbled toward the basket in the first quarter of his first NBA Finals game, head down, as purposefully as ever. He slowed a few feet from the hoop and launched the ball toward the basket.

In a flash, Shaquille O'Neal appeared as if from nowhere, rising and reaching high into the air to spike Kidd's shot out of bounds.

Uh-oh.

The Nets entered a brave new world Wednesday, failing to get where Kidd took them in their earlier round victories over the Indiana Pacers, Charlotte Hornets and Boston Celtics. Kidd leads and the Nets follow, but not in a 99-94 loss to the Lakers on Wednesday in Game 1 at Staples Center.

True, Kidd would continue to press the issue, even after it seemed the game was lost. Although he would finish with 23 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, he was perhaps only the third-best player on the court, overshadowed by O'Neal's raw power in the paint and Kobe Bryant's finesse from one end of the floor to the other.

What's more, the Nets' jittery start obscured all the good things Kidd and his teammates accomplished in the second half, when they rallied late to within three points.

The bottom line was that Kidd had a triple-double, but the ball was never in his hands for a meaningful possession. The Nets drew close in the fourth quarter, but never had the ball with a chance to tie the score or take the lead.

"It's very important to come out Friday and get a good start," Kidd said, referring to Game 2 of the best-of-seven series. "We can't be down 15 or 16 points like we were tonight. Five or six points would be OK. We have to relax. We have nothing to lose. Now we all understand it's just like the [other rounds of the] playoffs."

Kidd seemed a bit tentative at first, uncertain with the ball. The Lakers made their shots at the start, but the Nets missed 16 of 22 in the first quarter. New Jersey's players stood on the perimeter, looking for openings that never became available. The up-tempo style of play, triggered by Kidd, never materialized until the second half.

By then, the Lakers were in control and cruising.

When Kidd settled into his more familiar pattern of driving, drawing Laker defenders to him and passing to open teammates, matters improved greatly for the Nets. Kidd, acquired in an off-season deal with the Phoenix Suns, transformed the Nets from 26-game winners last season to a franchise-best 52 victories in 2001-02.

"It's hard to run when you keep taking the ball out of the basket," Kidd said of the Nets' failure to push the pace. "I felt we were a little nervous to start the game. Everybody was a little tense. It's a learning experience for a young team that's never been here before. We have to relax and try to go out there and execute, take the same approach that we had against Boston."

Kidd was masterful against the Celtics, controlling play and averaging a triple-double (17.5 points, 11.2 rebounds and 10.2 assists) in the Nets' six-game victory in the East finals. He is facing a dramatically different opponent here, however, starting with Bryant, who dogged him relentlessly Wednesday.

Toughened by chasing Sacramento's Mike Bibby, in particular, as well as San Antonio's Tony Parker and Portland's Damon Stoudamire in the earlier rounds, the Lakers now know what it takes to thwart an elite point guard.

Kidd presents different challenges for the Lakers. O'Neal said on the eve of Game 1 that Kidd was his pick for the most-valuable-player award that went to San Antonio's Tim Duncan.

Bryant, asked about stopping Kidd in Game 2 said, "It's different if a guy is going out there and he's trying to score 40 or 50 points. You can put the shackles on a guy like that. Jason Kidd is pretty much all over the place, getting rebounds, getting other people involved. If other guys are hitting shots, you can't stop that."

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