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NBA FINALS / GAME 3 / LAKERS 106, NEW JERSEY 103

Mercy Is Nets' Only Hope

June 10, 2002

Maybe David Stern can go to the 15-run rule, like they have in softball beer leagues in the Midwest. The NBA needs a mercy clause, some face-saving intervention, because this is getting pretty futile.

I was kind of pulling for New Jersey to get a game. Keith Van Horn played for me at Utah, and I feel for him. Plus, it would be nice to get some validation for the East, if nothing else.

Obviously, it's over. Nobody comes back from 3-0. The Nets pulled out every stop, but they still struggled. Every score the Nets got was an adventure. Right now, points for New Jersey are harder to get than help for a blowout on the Santa Monica Freeway.

New Jersey tried so hard. They played according to Hoyle. They did all they could do, and it wasn't nearly enough. In the beginning, they took it right at Shaquille O'Neal, and Todd McCullouch got a few points. They pressed. They zoned. They selectively doubled Shaq. They tried to run. They tried every bullet they had, and still ended up wide of the target.

They tried everything they could, but the Lakers defend so well that even if they do make a defensive mistake, there is the Big Eraser. You all saw the block on Jason Kidd at the end. You might just as well try to shoot over Mt. Everest. If you are the Nets, and you run something that finally beats the Laker perimeter defense, and then, there he is, the Howitzer, exploding the ball back in your face, you have to want to go join the French Foreign Legion.

The Nets tried. Heaven knows they tried. They started out doing a good job of putting a body against Shaq, of standing him up a little. They took all their fouls. They zoned him a little, selectively doubled him, even made him run up to cover some high picks on the ball. But to no avail.

They tried the whole arsenal and the Lakers barely flinched.

Let's look at it this way.

The Lakers started the playoffs against one of the best-talent teams in the NBA, Portland. Handled them.

Next they played the best player in the league, at least according to the MVP vote. Tim Duncan is a terrific player and San Antonio is a very good team. Handled them.

Then came the cowbells and the real NBA Finals. Sacramento is the NBA's varsity fast-break team, and had a better record than the Lakers and the home-court advantage that comes with that. Handled them, too.

So along comes New Jersey, and the sad truth is that all three of the Laker playoff opponents prior to the Nets presented more of a problem for the Lakers.

I hope Laker fans understand how much the skills of some of the other Lakers are lost in the nightly Shaq-Kobe show. It is hard to see anything else in the glare of these two superstars.

But Sunday night provided a good look at the defensive toughness of Rick Fox and Derek Fisher and the great situational defense of Robert Horry. Fox and Fisher are understated and underrated in the defensive scheme of L.A., and Horry, who doesn't play quite as physically tough as those two and doesn't pressure his man as much, is still astute in his defensive assignments. He bothers you and he is long. And they are all situational veterans. They've all been through this now in June, and they know exactly what they are doing.

For me, it was there from the start. I didn't like the looks in the eyes of the Nets' players coming out of the opening huddle. It wasn't that they were awestruck, but they seemed to be looking to each other to buoy their confidence. It looked like a charade. There was no swagger, no bravado.

And soon, there will be no more NBA Finals.

Mercifully so.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Xs and O's RICK MAJERUS

Rick Majerus, Utah basketball coach, will be The Times' guest analyst on the Lakers for the rest of the playoffs. Majerus, the fourth-winningest active coach in major college basketball, will begin his 14th season at Utah this fall.

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