It has been a series of bad shooting, bad acting and bad room service, a series of posturing and woofing, a series of spectacular rallies, spectacular runs and at least one case of, well, the plain old-fashioned runs. Thus it has served as the perfect stage for those two comic-operatic centers: Shaquille O'Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers, the 7'1", 345-pound, millionaire rapper who in the midst of the Western Conference finals declared himself "representative of the common man"; and Vlade Divac of the Sacramento Kings, the back-slapping, sleepy-eyed citizen of the world who, if the Lakers are to be believed, flops more than all the mammals in all the tanks at Sea World.
After three games that played out like an imperfect yet enjoyable B movie, Sunday's Game 4 in Los Angeles was decided by a hero with a true sense of drama, forward Robert Horry, whose walk-off three-point shot gave L.A. a breathtaking 100-99 victory to even the series at 2-2. In the timeout that preceded Horry's dagger, teammate Lindsey Hunter had said in the huddle, "It's time for Big Game Rob to take over." All sorts of unpredictable stuff happened before he got the ball, but Horry, whose resume is peppered with clutch threes, is clearly a man who honors a cue.
The stunning comeback (the Lakers trailed by 24 in the second quarter) may have conveyed the impression that LA had regained the upper hand after a crushing 103-90 Game 3 loss at home last Friday. Don't be too sure. Little had gone according to script in the series through Sunday; unexpected plot twists included a road victory for each team and Kobe Bryant's midnight room-service meal of a cheeseburger and cheesecake between Games 1 and 2 in Sacramento, which evidently gave him a case of food poisoning. One caller to an L.A. radio show suggested that a New Jersey mob guy had gotten to the Sacramento Hyatt kitchen staff because a sick Kobe might pave the way for a Nets victory in the Finals. Attention, Boston Celtics: Beware any chef who resembles Paulie Walnuts.
If the Lakers are to continue their pursuit of a three-peat, they must get more help for Shaq, Kobe and Big Game. (Anyone spotting supporting players Hunter, Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, Devean George and Samaki Walker should call the LAPD immediately.) If the Kings are to stop that quest, they will have to figure out a way to release 6'1" point guard Mike Bibby from Bryant's clutches. Bibby, the breakout player of this postseason, had 21 points in Game 4 but only three of them in the second half, during which he was guarded largely by the 6'7" Bryant, perhaps the league's best on-the-ball stopper.
Sacramento will also need the many and varied contributions of Divac, who scored a team-high 23 points on Sunday and who has used his defensive skills (the Lakers would say deviousness) to keep Shaq (27.0 points per game through Game 4) from running amok. Divac will throw in an arm bar, locking up O'Neal around his elbow. Divac will appear on one side of Shaq, then suddenly dart to the other, like a thief staying in the shadows. Divac will back off to put space between himself and Shaq because O'Neal is at his best when he feels contact. In an effort to shackle Shaq, Divac will also stare at the referees in disbelief, appeal to the heavens and, yes, occasionally fall to the ground. (The Sacramento Bee recognized Divac's thespian skills on Oscar night three years ago, presenting him with the NBA's best actor award.) Before halftime in Game 2 at Arco Arena, O'Neal had scored 23 points when he was whistled for his third offensive foul, drawn, of course, by the Barrymore of the Boards. Lakers coach Phil Jackson leaped off the bench to protest and drew a technical foul. His efficacy reduced, Shaq finished with 35 points in a 96-90 Kings win, which tied the series at 1-1.
Divac has not dominated the series, but the Big Serb and the Big Aristotle have certainly defined it. It might be going too far to call Sunday's game the most important one of O'Neal's 10-year career. But only a little too far, for it followed a tepid effort in Game 3, at the outset of which he effectively said, like Melville's Bartleby the scrivener, "I would prefer not to." Frustrated by the calls in Games 1 and 2, O'Neal told his mates not to go to him early, until he could see how the game was being officiated. By the time O'Neal chose to enter the fray, the Kings had run off to a 32-15 first-quarter lead and were never caught.
"There is only one way to beat us," O'Neal said between Games 2 and 3. "It starts with c and ends with t." There was some head-scratching before it was divined that O'Neal meant "cheat" and not something either X-rated or far out, like "covenant" or "coronet." Shaq also referred to Divac as "she" and rambled on about being a regular Joe who would never exaggerate contact to draw a whistle. "I'm a guy with no talent who has gotten this way with hard work," said Shaq. Stopping a few characters short of becoming the Village People, Shaq also said, "I represent the construction worker, the police officer, the firefighter." Given his shoulder-lowering tendencies on offense, O'Neal's whining about the refs came across like Pavarotti's complaining about a restaurant's pasta portions: He might have a point, but he's the wrong person to bring it up.
Horry and Fox suggested before Game 4 that Shaq should stop worrying about the whistles and play his power game, which is what he did, going right at Divac and his replacement, Scot Pollard. As Bryant struggled to find his rhythm in a scoreless first quarter, Shaq carried the load almost alone and finished with 27 points and 18 rebounds, both game highs. He also made six straight free throws down the stretch. Considering his ongoing battle with an arthritic right big toe, it might seem like good news for the Lakers that Shaq was so effective over 42 minutes. But what it also means is that O'Neal will have to play exactly that hard and that long every game for the rest of the series.
It's unfortunate that Divac, at least when he plays in L.A.—where he is lustily booed and was serenaded with a chorus of Vla-de sucks! during the second quarter on Sunday—is known primarily for his theatrics. In fact, he is a throwback to the old-school pivotmen, like Johnny (Red) Kerr, who were not dominant forces but rather team players proficient in all aspects of the game. Divac was in the middle of almost everything down the stretch in Game 4, including two plays that were unfortunate for the Kings. His driving bucket with 11.8 seconds left was waved off because of a phantom foul call on Fox. "He never even touched a hair on my arm," said Divac, who made only one of two free throws to give Sacramento a 99-97 lead. And there was Divac batting an O'Neal miss out to Horry at the top of the key, where he launched his game-winner. No matter the result, Divac's play was the correct one, an effort to keep O'Neal from getting a follow shot and at the same time kill the clock. It failed by about six tenths of a second, which is when Horry let fly, giving the Lakers the lead for the first time since 2-0.
Divac later offhandedly called the shot "lucky," a word that was scoffed at by the Lakers. Sacramento star Chris Webber clarified Divac's remark: The Kings felt the sequence of events leading up to the shot was lucky for the Lakers (which it was), though Horry's stroke was skill (which it was). No matter. Whatever Divac says or does, the Lakers are going to jump on it. Even more than Webber, Divac is the lightning rod for criticism, and it never seems to perturb him. Vlade, what about Shaq calling you "she"? "It would bother me if Shaq was bad man. But he is good man." Vlade, what about a crowd that was once your own (he played in LA from 1989-90 to '95-'96) yelling that you suck? "It is just a game. I know they love me." Vlade, don't you resent the Lakers because they seem to dis you at every opportunity? "Oh, no. They are my second-favorite team, after the Kings."