LOS ANGELES -- The New Jersey Nets were about 20 minutes late for the
franchise's first-ever game in the NBA Finals on Wednesday night.
No, the Nets' team bus didn't get caught in traffic or break down on the drive to the Staples Center. The Nets were just late in showing up on the court to give the Los Angeles Lakers some early resistance to their three-peat bid.
Against a lost Nets squad, the Lakers raced out to a 29-14 lead after one
quarter and enjoyed a lead as large 23 points in the first half. That's
why, when Byron Scott gathers his club together to view tape of the Lakers'
99-94 victory, he'll probably be preaching the importance of punctuality.
The best-of-seven series returns to the Staples Center for Game 2 on Friday.
"This is the biggest stage in basketball, so you're going to have some jitters and you're probably going to go out there and do things you're not accustomed or you don't normally do," Scott said. "I just wanted our guys to calm down, relax and get back to playing basketball."
"Maybe we were a little nervous, and everybody was a little tense to start the game," acknowledged Jason Kidd, who produced another triple-double with a team-high 23 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. "That's a learning experience for a young team that's never been here."
The Nets didn't realize they were representing the Eastern Conference
against the two-time defending world champions until O'Neal scored his 16th
first-half point on a turnaround jumper for a 42-19 bulge in the second
quarter. New Jersey scored 17 of the next 23 points to climb within 48-36 at halftime.
The Nets kept chipping away in the second half, getting as close as three
points twice in the fourth quarter. Kenyon Martin sank two free throws to
pull New Jersey within 84-81 with 4:47 to play. But O'Neal made the Nets pay
for their Hack-a-Shaq strategy, sinking four of six free throws in the final 3:25 to help put the game away.
"It was too little too late," Nets center Todd MacCulloch said. "With that lead they had, we just weren't able to come back and get it."
With the Lakers having little trouble getting the ball to O'Neal in the post,
the big fella scored a game-high 36 points, 14 in the final period, to go with 16 rebounds and four blocks. Kobe Bryant added 22 points on just 6-of-16 shooting, but L.A. enjoyed a 50-45 advantage on the boards to stall New Jersey's fastbreak offense.
"They were obviously embarrassed early in the ball game," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "We came out and looked very good and carried the action. Then, they came in the second quarter, got themselves in the ball game. ... They were tenacious. They stuck with it."
Pre-series speculation gave the Nets a chance, albeit a tiny one, of taking
a 1-0 lead if, and only if, the Lakers were too busy wiping the sleep from
their eyes after resting from a taxing, seven-game Western Conference final
against the Sacramento Kings. The sellout crowd of 18,997 was hard pressed to
stay awake, much less find something to cheer about during L.A.'s first-half
O'Neal looked refreshed, and hardly resembled the ailing center who
limped through the previous three rounds in scoring 10 points to help the
Lakers build a 15-point lead after one quarter.
The tell-tale signs that things had
gone awry for the Nets in the first half were, 1) the sight of Slava
Medvedenko on the court actually getting substantial second-quarter minutes,
and, 2) Rick Fox choosing not to feed a wide-open Bryant in the lane but
to drive uncontested himself for a two-handed jam and a 48-31 Lakers lead.
Kidd scored the final five points of the half to cut the Nets' deficit
to 48-36 at intermission.
"I think in order for us to maintain the big lead, we have to do what got us the big lead," O'Neal said. "We got kind of cute and started shooting jumpers and started messing around. We just got sort of lackadaisacal."
Jason Collins, the rookie center who starred at Harvard-Westlake High in
nearby North Hollywood, was the one called on to hack Shaq in the final quarter.
And it worked for the most part as O'Neal, at one point, missed three
straight free throws to allow the Nets to climb within 82-79 on Keith Van
New Jersey kept it a two-possession game in the final three minutes, Collins
sinking two free throws to make it 91-87 with 2:26 remaining. But O'Neal's two free throws, Fox's layup off a nifty bounce pass from Bryant and one more O'Neal free throw extended L.A.'s lead to 96-89 with 49.6 seconds to play.
"Guys aren't holding their heads about this game," said Martin, who debunked the opening-night jitters theory. "We realized we had a chance to win this game."
"We didn't give up. We knocked on the door but just couldn't come through," Kidd said. "But the biggest thing is that we've got to make shots. We had the opportunities. We just didn't knock them down when we had to. They're the two-time defending champs. We don't have to play the perfect game."
They just need to arrive on time.
The Nets, who entered the game shooting 73.7 percent from the line in the playoffs, made only 15 of 26 free throws (57.7 percent). ... Kidd's triple-double was the 26th in NBA Finals history. ... Scott said he gave Magic Johnson "a big hug" before the game to congratulate his ex-Showtime Lakers teammate on his selection to the Basketball Hall of Fame on Wednesday. Scott said he'll have more to celebrate with his buddy
later. "Earvin knows me well enough to understand that," Scott said. "You
know, it's just nothing personal. This is just business and we're trying to
win a championship."
Joe Lago is the NBA editor for ESPN.com.