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TRANSITION GAME LONNIE WHITE

Shaq Problem Is Only the Biggest One for the Nets

June 07, 2002|LONNIE WHITE

The Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal has been proving a lot of people wrong, including me. I was one of many who considered O'Neal's free-throw shooting as the Lakers' biggest weakness heading into the playoffs. That's not true any more.

O'Neal has been making free throws with so much confidence, the Lakers are assured points almost every time they get the ball into him near the basket. O'Neal not only has improved his shooting from the line, he also has developed a nice array of jump hooks, which include bank shots.

The New Jersey Nets know that in order to upset the Lakers in the best-of-seven NBA Finals, they will have to do a better job slowing O'Neal, who dominated Game 1 with 36 points, 16 rebounds and four blocked shots

Coach Phil Jackson's decision to have Robert Horry defend Kenyon Martin and put Rick Fox on Keith Van Horn worked to perfection for the Lakers in Game 1. Now it's up to Coach Byron Scott to make a few changes for the Nets, who did not help themselves by shooting 39.4% from the field and only 57.7% from the free-throw line Wednesday.

A breakdown of tonight's Game 2 at Staples Center:

NETS' MOVE--New Jersey should use more pick-and-roll plays with point guard Jason Kidd tonight, but operate them closer to the basket. Kidd is a streak shooter at best from the three-point line, but he's pretty accurate from the 12- to 15-foot range. The Nets have to realize that O'Neal is just as inconsistent defending pick-and-roll plays set at the free-throw line as he is when they are run farther out.

Center Todd MacCulloch may have looked bad at times in Game 1, but he provided some good production with 10 points and eight rebounds, including six offensive boards, in only 25 minutes. A bigger problem for New Jersey was the inconsistent play of forwards Van Horn and Martin, who combined to shoot 12 for 36 from the field.

Van Horn made two three-pointers at the start of the second half, but mostly Fox made his night miserable. Van Horn, taller and heavier than Fox, has to play his game and use his size more.

Martin had trouble early on but he was more effective in the second half when he began taking the ball to the basket. If the Lakers continue to assign Horry to defend Martin, the Net power forward can't just stand on the perimeter.

LAKERS' MOVE--Obviously, Los Angeles' biggest problem is staying focused. The Lakers should know by now that they cannot afford to fall in love with the three-point shot. They missed nine of 10 attempts Wednesday. Even with O'Neal in the middle, players such as Fisher, Fox and Horry have to keep attacking and not settle for jump shots.

The Lakers also have to remember to always get back on defense against the Nets. The more outside shots they take means more long rebounds, which often feed New Jersey fastbreaks. The Lakers are two-time defending champions because they've been able to take away the strengths of their opponents.

After building a 23-point lead in the first half, the Lakers lost their concentration. Jackson and his coaching staff have to stay on their up-and-down players at all times against the Nets. The worst thing the Lakers can do is make this a knock-down, drag-out type of series.

KEY POINT--Tempo is so important for both teams. If the flow is fast, the advantage goes to the Nets. If the pace is more methodical, the Lakers have the edge.

In Game 1, New Jersey's defense was too soft. The Lakers were able to move around their offensive sets without much resistance. Not only did O'Neal get post position whenever he wanted, but so did the rest of the Lakers. The Nets can't allow this to happen in Game 2. They have to be more physical and move their feet to get into better positions on defense.

Based on how New Jersey played in the second half on Wednesday, the Lakers should expect a better start from the Nets tonight. Scott threw more players at O'Neal and had them clog up the paint, which is something the Lakers should expect the remainder of the series.

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