Shaq no longer a liability at free-throw linePosted: Thursday June 06, 2002 12:37 AM
Updated: Thursday June 06, 2002 1:29 AM
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Shaquille O'Neal doesn't mind when he's sent to the free-throw line late in a close game.
Once shaky when standing 15 feet from the basket, alone, with the game stopped, the Los Angeles Lakers' center has become considerably more confident.
He went 5-for-8 from the line over the final 6:12 Wednesday night, with New Jersey defenders committing several intentional fouls against him, and the Lakers held off the Nets 99-94 in the opening game of the NBA Finals.
With the Lakers leading by eight points late in the game and the Nets needing to score quickly, Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson told O'Neal during a timeout, "If they score, take the ball out of bounds so they won't foul you immediately.
"He said, 'Those days are gone. I'm comfortable now, going to the line and making those foul shots at the end.'"
O'Neal backed that up.
"I can hit 'em when I need to hit 'em," said O'Neal, who made 12 of 21 free throws. "I'll get one point, two points, three points."
He grinned and added, "I'm a prolific scorer."
O'Neal, who scored 36 points, had 16 rebounds and blocked four shots, considered the first game of the Finals a get-acquainted session for the Lakers and Nets, who split their two meetings in the regular season.
"This game was just sort of a feel-'em-out," he said. "We only played them twice. We figured out what was needed and won by five points.
"I'm sure the second game will be more interesting."
Concerned that they might come out flat, the Lakers were up by 15 by the end of the first quarter. That cushion turned out to be barely enough, as the Nets got as close as three points.
Coming out aggressively on both ends of the floor, O'Neal had 10 points and three blocked shots in the first 15 minutes.
After the Lakers' first-quarter burst, the Nets outscored them 80-70 the rest of the way.
"I think for us to maintain that big lead, we needed to keep playing the same way," O'Neal said. "We got kind of cute, started shooting jumpers and sort of got lackadaisical.
"But every time we're challenged, we step up, so we have to challenge ourselves a little more."
Kobe Bryant said some of the spark from the Western Conference finals, where the Lakers beat Sacramento in seven games, seemed to carry over to the first game against New Jersey.
"We came out with the same kind of intensity we'd had during the last series," said Bryant, who finished with 22 points. "Then we lost it in the second and third periods."
Derek Fisher scored nine of his 13 points in the first quarter, and the Lakers shot 50 percent and played smothering defense, holding the Nets to 6-of-22 shooting.
The Nets trailed 48-36 at halftime and narrowed the gap to 60-56 in the third before the Lakers spurted away again to lead 72-63 heading into the final period. New Jersey was within 84-81 with 4:47 remaining, but O'Neal took control to help keep the Lakers in front.
Going for their third consecutive NBA title, the Lakers have
lost a total of just three times in the Finals over the past two
years, beating Philadelphia 4-1 a year ago and Indiana 4-2 in 2000.