LOS ANGELES -- On so many nights, the other 11 pushed him along as best they could, for this, for the handful of games in June they believed would make them champions again.
Shaquille O'Neal, playing through all that tormented him for so long, scored 40 points Friday night at Staples Center, where the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the New Jersey Nets, 106-83, for a two-games-to-none lead in the best-of-seven NBA Finals.
Their precious three-peat, what has driven them all for so long, is two victories away, because they've come upon a more seamless game, and they've come back to O'Neal, just in time for the Nets.
Charismatic again, grinning and acting up again, O'Neal took 12 rebounds and had eight assists, a game high. When the Lakers needed him late in the Western Conference finals, when only he could save them, O'Neal scored 41 points in Game 6, then 35 in Game 7.
When they needed him to overwhelm the Nets, too proud-or stubborn-to double-team with all their hearts, O'Neal scored 36 points in Game 1, then those 40 in Game 2. Since 1985, when the league went to the 2-3-2 Finals format, no team has come back from an 0-2 deficit.
"Can't do nothing with him," said Kobe Bryant, whose 24 points were quiet in comparison. "Can't do anything. You know, he's like Wilt, Kareem, Jordan, all those other guys.
"There's nothing you can do about that. He's just going to demoralize the team. Pretty much just gonna have to deal with that."
Their chins up, their words brave, the Nets trudged back to New Jersey. Game 3 is Sunday at Continental Airlines Arena.
"We haven't done anything," Laker Coach Phil Jackson said. Still, Jackson was moved to write on the locker-room grease board: "That's more like it." Afterward, O'Neal dedicated his near triple-double to Sacramento King Coach Rick Adelman, who, four days after being eliminated by O'Neal, griped again that no one has the courage to officiate the Laker center. O'Neal made 12 of 14 free throws, often posing over the swishes, his right wrist hinged poetically over his head. "Can I go a day without somebody saying something negative about me?" O'Neal asked rhetorically. "So, that's for those who question me. I was upset today. "The guys got me the ball and, you know, we have a little formula that our game goes through. Our formula is simple: First one to four games. Now, we got two." The man who once, so long ago, could not win a championship now carries them in bunches. The Lakers suddenly -- and again -- are as large as O'Neal makes them. He scored 12 points in the first quarter, in case there was any doubt about Game 1, and about the risk Net Coach Byron Scott was taking with his inattentive defensive strategies. He had 11 in the second quarter, and then 13 in the third, when the lead went from four to 20 in 9 1/2 minutes. Of course, it wouldn't be a Laker game if they went end-to-end, so the Nets twice drew to within six points in the fourth quarter before the Lakers finished on a 23-6 run. Jason Kidd scored 17 points, all in the second half, and Kerry Kittles scored 23 points. Scott smiled wearily afterward and said what they all had been thinking, from Todd MacCulloch to Aaron Williams to young Jason Collins, all game, all in way over their heads. "He's a monster," Scott said. "I don't know what to do with him right now. The second half, we doubled him a little bit. He kicked it out, got other guys involved. They knocked down shots. You know, when we tried to come on the dribble, he's still stepping through, getting his shot off. You know, he's just a dominant player. I don't know what to really do against Shaq right now."
Rick Fox scored 10 points, Robert Horry scored nine.
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