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Still the Kings

The Nets were the opponent, but the Lakers found motivation in the Golden State's capital


With the cowbells and complaints of Sacramento still ringing in their ears and their eyes fixated on a place in history, the Lakers embarked on the last stage of their quest, against the New Jersey Nets.

As was often the case during the season, the toughest challenge they faced came from themselves. Would they suffer too much of a letdown after the dramatic Western Conference finals against the Kings? Could they take the overmatched Nets seriously? Did they have enough energy remaining?

It turns out the King series didn't drain the Lakers. It made them appreciate how close they were to missing out on not only this championship, but the chance to rank among the all-time great champions.

And Shaquille O'Neal was motivated. That was enough.

He couldn't get angry at the Nets because he had too much respect for New Jersey Coach Byron Scott, a one-time Laker teammate.

So he raged at the whining of Sacramento Coach Rick Adelman, who used the days after the Kings' elimination to point out that O'Neal had stepped over the line on his free throws.

O'Neal reminded himself of the shots he took from the media earlier in his career, when he was accused of pursuing rap and movie careers with more vigor than an NBA championship.

And the native of Newark wanted to win a championship in front of his family in New Jersey.

The series ended early, but not before O'Neal set records for points, free throws and blocked shots in a four-game Finals.

O'Neal played with vigor and an energy level that hadn't been seen too often during the regular season. His various injuries, most notably his arthritic right big toe, weren't a factor.

Neither, it turned out, were the Nets.

Whatever hangover effect the Lakers experienced was exceeded by the Nets' anxiety about appearing in their first Finals.

The NBA Finals are more than just the logos on the floor and the extra decorations hanging around the arena. The Finals bring on an intense media demand.

Reporters crowd the locker room and make it difficult for players to make their way to their seats. Interview requests seem to come from every channel available by satellite.

And friends and long-lost cousins want tickets.

That resulted in some dismal shooting and a 14-point output by the Nets in the first quarter of Game 1. Welcome to the Finals.

O'Neal had 36 points and 16 rebounds, and that was pretty much that, as the Lakers won, 99-94. It might have been the least competitive five-point game ever.

Game 2 featured more of the same, as O'Neal finished with 40 points and eight assists and the Lakers won, 106-83. In 96 minutes of basketball, the Nets held the lead for 117 seconds. They surrendered it after going ahead 4-2 in the first game and didn't see it again until they got to the Meadowlands.

After traveling to the East Coast on the off day, the Lakers' next concern was finding a place to watch the Lennox Lewis-Mike Tyson fight.

The boxing went down a lot like this series. Lewis landed his jab whenever he wanted to, keeping Tyson at bay. And there wasn't a thing Tyson could do about it.

Shaq had people wondering if all-time greats such as Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain could have guarded him. What chance did the Nets have with a trio of centers named Todd MacCulloch, Aaron Williams and Jason Collins?

O'Neal got position just about anywhere he wanted against all of them. They developed a regular routine of fouling him, then heading to the bench. O'Neal went through the Net centers like a roll of paper towels. It was almost like watching an awesome lineup wear out another team's pitching staff, except O'Neal did all the heavy hitting himself.

Shaq's dominance gave the Lakers a 2-0 lead, and Kobe Bryant had yet to join the party, scoring a modest 46 points through two games.

It showed how much he had grown and accepted his role on the team, how he realized that the Lakers were sometimes better off when he tried to do less.

But the inner drive that pushes Bryant to be the best can be suppressed only for so long. Game 3 would be his time. He took 23 shots and made 14 of them, by far his best shooting performance of the postseason.

There were times that he could have passed the ball in to O'Neal, but he decided he wanted it, as if it were his turn to buy a round of drinks.

With half a minute left in the fourth quarter, with the Lakers ahead by two, they came out of a timeout and Bryant was casually bobbing his head to the arena music as he waited for the ball to be inbounded. There was no doubt he was going to get the ball and score, which is exactly what he did, and the Lakers were about to successfully rally from a seven-point deficit to a 106-103 victory.

Just a reminder that the Lakers also have the second-best player in the game.

For the first time, the Nets had put together a good enough game to win. Their most-valuable-player candidate, Jason Kidd, had 30 points and 10 assists. Kenyon Martin played like a No. 1 overall pick and scored 26 points. All it did was get the Nets closer ... to the edge of elimination.

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