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

MacCulloch Centers Blame on Self

Game 3: Nets' big man says his poor defense on O'Neal is the main reason his team is down three games to Lakers.

June 10, 2002|ELLIOTT TEAFORD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Todd MacCulloch doesn't want your pity. Or your scorn. He's doing the best he possibly can against Shaquille O'Neal, short of having him whacked by one of Tony Soprano's henchmen. He knows it's not good enough.

An HBO screenwriter simply cannot write MacCulloch out of the mess he and the New Jersey Nets are in against the bigger, stronger, faster and more experienced O'Neal and the Lakers.

Only the strong survive.

That sacred tenant, in life and on the hardwood, was brutally illustrated again in Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Sunday at Continental Airlines Arena, where MacCulloch and the Nets swarmed O'Neal with a new defensive strategy--a collapsing zone that had them clinging to the Laker center like lint.

The Nets gambled that the other Lakers couldn't defeat them from the outside. They had seen enough of O'Neal's thunderous dunks, deft jump shots and sweet jump hooks in Games 1 and 2. New Jersey Coach Byron Scott determined that it was time for a different ploy.

New game plan, same poor fellow attempting to put it to good use for his beleaguered team.

"Another bad game," MacCulloch said after the Nets' 106-103 loss to the Lakers left them with a three-games-to-none deficit. "I didn't do a good job on Shaq. I haven't played well the whole series."

Said Scott: "We don't have anybody like Shaq. It's not only us, but there are 28 other teams in the league who don't have anybody like that. Anybody we put on him is a mismatch."

O'Neal scored 35 points (on 12-for-19 shooting), took 11 rebounds and blocked four shots, including a pivotal swat against a driving Jason Kidd with 48 seconds left in the game. He also made 11 of 17 free throws. He wasn't as electrifying as when he scored 40 points and took 12 rebounds and added eight assists Friday in Game 2. He wasn't as forceful as in scoring 36 and taking 16 rebounds Wednesday in Game 1.

O'Neal was all but unstoppable, however.

"I thought I did a pretty bad job defending Shaq," MacCulloch said.

Perhaps he's correct in his harsh self-evaluation, particularly when you consider that O'Neal scored 40 points and took 12 rebounds in the only regular-season game he played against MacCulloch this season.

Jason Collins, MacCulloch's backup, doesn't agree, however.

"Look at how Shaq has played against everybody else in his career in the Finals," said Collins, a rookie from Stanford. "It's not like other guys have had any better luck against him. He's going to make his shots, but you've got to make it tough on him."

The Nets made the Lakers uncomfortable for long stretches of Game 3, playing their most aggressive defense against O'Neal in the series. Most of that was a result of ditching their foolhardy solo coverage against O'Neal in favor of the zone.

MacCulloch caused O'Neal problems by being forceful with the basketball in the first half. Instead of settling for setting picks and picking up an occasional offensive rebound, MacCulloch attacked the hoop and scored 10 points on four-for-seven shooting in nine minutes in the first half.

But Scott decided against playing MacCulloch as much in the second half, putting a quicker team on the floor--the better to pressure the Lakers all over the court. The Nets surged to a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter. But the Lakers steadied themselves and rallied for their third victory over the Nets.

By game's end, Collins would play 27 minutes to only 14 for MacCulloch. Collins would miss all four of his shots and take only three rebounds compared to MacCulloch's four-for-eight shooting and one rebound.

At the end, Collins figured the Nets' twin 7-foot centers had one thing in common: an ugly collection of bumps and bruises suffered in tangling with the 7-foot-1, 335-pound O'Neal.

Asked what, if anything, he could compare to guarding O'Neal, Collins said, without hesitation, "I would say it's like playing in a football game and going up against a big, physical lineman. At the end of the game, you're definitely tired."

Tired, deflated, defeated.

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