Lakers take a break before preparing for Nets

Tuesday, June 4, 2002

LOS ANGELES -- The two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers took Monday off rather than begin preparations for the New Jersey Nets, and who can blame them?

Most everyone believes the real NBA Finals ended Sunday in Sacramento.

So much time, so much energy went into putting away the Sacramento Kings that it might be difficult for the Lakers to gear up again so quickly. The Finals begin Wednesday night at Staples Center.

The Lakers are no dummies, they know what's going on.

If they're not aware they have been established as 9-1 favorites in their quest for the second three-peat in franchise history, they'll soon hear about it.

But the battle-tested Lakers say they'll be ready.

And who's to doubt them? They've been here before.

"What day is today?" Robert Horry asked after the Lakers beat the Kings 112-106 in overtime in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals. "Sunday?

"What day to the Finals start? Wednesday?

"Oh, we got enough gas."

The Lakers, in the Finals for the 21st time, are seeking their 14th championship -- they won five titles in Minneapolis including three straight from 1952-54 -- and eight since moving to Los Angeles in 1960.

The Nets, a lottery team just last year, are in the Finals for the first time.

A mismatch?

On paper, maybe.

The Lakers have appeared vulnerable at times during the playoffs, but they survived a remarkable series with Sacramento and said afterward there was never a doubt.

"They felt it was their time," Shaquille O'Neal said. "It was not their time."

Said Horry: "We got a lot of people saying we couldn't do it, we couldn't do it in Sacramento's house. We stayed calm and did it."

One of the main reasons the Lakers won was O'Neal, who came up with dominating efforts when the Lakers had to have them in Games 6 and 7 of the conference finals.

Ignoring his painful arthritic right big toe and fatigue, O'Neal had 41 points and 17 rebounds in 44 minutes Friday night in a 106-102 victory and 35 points and 13 rebounds less than 48 hours later in 51 minutes in Game 7.

And he made free throws the way Rick Barry used to: 13-of-17 and 11-of-15 in the last two games. That's 24-of-32 and 75 percent -- far above his typical output.

"Over the last couple of years now, when I've needed to hit them, I've hit them," O'Neal said.

The Nets don't figure to be nearly as equipped to deal with O'Neal as the Kings were.

However, New Jersey's Todd MacCulloch, the backup to Dikembe Mutombo in Philadelphia last season, at least has some experience guarding O'Neal in the Finals.

"You have to try to make him take shots a little further out than usual and make him work for everything he gets," MacCulloch said Monday before the Nets flew to Los Angeles. "You have to make everything a little more difficult for him.

"We have several guys that will take turns and move it around a little on him. But he's a dominating force. We just have to try to limit how much he can dominate. I'm just going to try to do the things I did well against him last year."

In O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, the Lakers have perhaps the NBA's two best players. And the supporting cast, led by Horry, Rick Fox and Derek Fisher, has played its part.

"We've been playing together for five years," Horry said. "If we don't understand what to do by now, something's wrong."

Lakers coach Phil Jackson has won a record 23 straight playoff series. Should he make it 24, it will make nine championships as a head coach to tie Red Auerbach's record and 156 postseason victories -- one more than all-time leader Pat Riley.

"We still have the heart of a champion," Fox said.

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