LOS ANGELES, June 5 (Ticker) --
From the start, the Los Angeles Lakers were ready. Eventually, the New Jersey Nets were willing. And once again in an NBA Finals opener, Shaquille O'Neal
was more than able.
O'Neal powered his way to 36 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks as he lifted the Lakers to a 99-94 victory and delivered
another very rude introduction to the upstarts from the East.
"I'm all about business," O'Neal said. "We just have to take care of business. We know what it takes at this particular
Kobe Bryant scored half of his 22 points in the third quarter, before Shaq took over the fourth.|
Garrett W. Ellwood
June has indisputably become O'Neal's time of year. He has won the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player each of the last two seasons and wasted no time getting started on a third award.
In the opener two years ago against Indiana, the 7-1, 350-pound O'Neal muscled his way to 43 points. Last year, he went for 44 and 20 rebounds in an overtime loss to Philadelphia.
And for the third straight year, O'Neal began the championship round by pounding across his simple but painfully effective message -- he cannot be stopped.
He made 12-of-22 shots and 12-of-21 free throws, manhandling his way through all three of New Jersey's centers.
"It's always a shock to have to play against Shaquille, especially when we saw they weren't providing much help for (center) Todd MacCulloch," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.
Playing the first NBA Finals game in franchise history, the Nets were a bundle of nerves in the opening half. They settled down nicely and nearly erased a 23-point deficit behind Jason Kidd, who posted another triple-double with 23 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists.
"It's human nature," said Nets coach Byron Scott, who played in six NBA Finals but has an extremely young team. "I think guys who haven't been here, you're going to be a little nervous. This is the biggest stage in basketball so you're going to have some jitters."
Not O'Neal, who was simply too much. In the fourth quarter, he paraded to the line before ending a Lakers' drought of nearly six minutes without a basket.
"There's no rules that are going to slow him down," Kidd said.
Dynasty 1, Destiny 0. Game 2 is here Friday.
"This game was sort of like a feel-out game," O'Neal said. "We only played this team twice, and now we know what they have. I'm sure each game's going to be different, but this was a feel-out game."
"Now that I think our guys got the first-quarter jitters out of the way, maybe this is going to be a better series than people think it's going to be," Scott said.
Two free throws by O'Neal made it 81-71 with 8:31 left, but the Lakers were immersed in a dry spell from the field and the Nets kept pecking away. Kidd's long jumper made it 81-77, and after O'Neal split a pair from the line, Keith Van Horn dunked to make it a three-point game.
O'Neal scored in the lane over Jason Collins with 5:02 to go, ending the 5:53 drought. Kenyon Martin made two free throws, but Rick Fox answered with two at the 4:35 mark and O'Neal made sure the Nets got no closer.
His hook made it 88-81 with 3:59 left, and he added a free throw and another hook for a 91-85 lead with 2:45 to go. Two more foul shots made it 93-87 with 1:50 left and he tossed in another from the line for a 96-89 cushion in the final minute.
"When he's getting the ball as deep as he was getting the ball, you're either going to give up two points or foul him and make him earn it from the stripe," Scott said.
Kobe Bryant scored a quiet 22 points, Fox added 14 and Derek Fisher 13 for the Lakers, who attempted just 25 shots with 39 free throws in the second half. Los Angeles was 32-of-45 from the line.
Martin scored 21 points and Van Horn added 12 for the Nets, who shot under 40 percent (37-of-94) but kept battling to the very end.
"We're gonna fight for 48 minutes, no matter if we win or lose," Kidd said.
For 1½ quarters, the opener of the Finals looked and sounded like a regular-season Nets-Lakers game -- from last year.
From the outset, the Nets were nervous, the Lakers loose. O'Neal was overpowering on both ends, scoring 10 points over
MacCulloch and blocking three shots, including a drive by Kidd that he knocked into the expensive seats. Meanwhile, New Jersey could not get its offense into a higher gear.
"A couple times they went to the hole," O'Neal said. "I just reacted and blocked a few shots. It could be good if I stay out of foul trouble and keep playing with the same intensity."
"It's hard to run when you're taking the ball out of the basket," Kidd said.
O'Neal sat down for six minutes in the first half and L.A. widened the lead without him, taking it from 25-10 to 36-15 with 8:52 remaining in the second quarter. O'Neal returned and abused the smaller Aaron Williams for three straight hoops and a 42-19 bulge.
"It seemed like a regular-season game, just going through the motions," Lakers guard Brian Shaw said.
The ho-hum crowd perked up a bit when the Nets finally began
defending and made a push late in the half. A fast-break layup
by Kittles capped a 12-2 run that cut it to 44-31. Kidd had a
3-pointer and follow shot to close the half and make it 48-36.
New Jersey showed even more life in the third quarter, this time
on the offensive end. Consecutive 3-pointers by Van Horn made
it a 10-point game before Bryant answered with a flying dunk.
A three-point play by Martin and a 3-pointer by Kittles had the
Nets within 60-56 with 5:23 left. O'Neal put in a layup and
Bryant made two free throws to restore some order.
"They were tenacious," Jackson said. "They stuck with it."
Bryant scored 11 points in the period as the Lakers rebuilt
their lead to 72-63 entering the final quarter.